Zimbabwean officials say they’ve identified the man who killed Cecil, the beloved lion who was illegally hunted and beheaded near his Hwange National Park home earlier this month.
Walter Palmer, a dentist from just outside Minneapolis, Minn., is said to have paid $50,000 for the chance to hunt the famous lion while on a safari on July 1. He now faces poaching charges.
Authorities believe that Cecil, who had a worldwide fan base due to his calm and friendly demeanor, was lured out of the park by Dr. Palmer and two other men.
"They went hunting at night with a spotlight and they spotted Cecil," said Johnny Rodrigues, head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, according to The Guardian. "They tied a dead animal to their vehicle to lure Cecil out of the park."
Palmer allegedly shot Cecil with a crossbow, tracked him for 40 hours, and ultimately finished him off with a gun. He then skinned and beheaded the 13-year-old lion, taking his trophies and leaving the rest of Cecil’s remains on the outskirts of the park.
According to Mr. Rodrigues, the hunters' initial use of a crossbow reflects a recent trend of poachers attempting to avoid arrest.
"It's more silent. If you want to do anything illegal, that's the way to do it," Rodrigues told BBC's Newsday program.
Authorities have confirmed that one of Palmer’s companions was Theo Bronkhorst, the founder of Bushman Safaris Zimbabwe, who officials say organized the hunt. Mr. Bronkhorst was arrested earlier this month, along with a third man in the hunting party: Ernest Mpofu, the son of Zimbabwe’s minister of transportation.
If convicted, the men face up to 15 years in prison.
At the time of his demise, Cecil was wearing a GPS collar that traced his movements as part of an Oxford University research project. The poachers allegedly tried to destroy the collar, but were unsuccessful.
"It's not many months ago that I watched Cecil with my hand on my heart as he strayed toward a hunting concession," said Professor David Macdonald, founding director of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, to CNN. "On that occasion he turned back into the protection of the park, but this time he made a fatal mistake and I feel deeply sad, personally."
A spokesman for Palmer told The Guardian that the dentist was "obviously quite upset over everything."
"As far as I understand, Walter believes that he might have shot that lion that has been referred to as Cecil," the spokesman said. "What he’ll tell you is that he had the proper legal permits and he had hired several professional guides, so he’s not denying that he may be the person who shot this lion. He is a big-game hunter; he hunts the world over."
Cecil is survived by his family of six lionesses and 24 cubs, CNN reports.
"The saddest part of all is that now that Cecil is dead, the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho, will most likely kill all Cecil's cubs," said Rodrigues.