Cecil the lion's killer denies guilt: When does hunting become poaching?

Walter Palmer, the man accused of killing Zimbabwe's beloved lion, Cecil, says he didn't know at the time that what he was doing was illegal.

Amy Forliti/AP
This photo shows the dental offices of Walter James Palmer in Bloomington, Minn., on Tuesday. Dr. Palmer, an avid hunter, is accused of illegally killing a well-known and protected lion, named Cecil, during a big game hunt in Zimbabwe. The killing has outraged animal conservationists and others worldwide.

The Minnesota dentist accused of killing Cecil the lion while on a safari in Zimbabwe claims he did not know at the time that the hunt was illegal.  

"I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt," said Walter Palmer in a statement, adding that to his knowledge, his professional guides had proper permits and everything was handled legally. 

Dr. Palmer allegedly killed Cecil, a fan favorite of visitors to the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, in early July when he lured the lion out of the national preserve with a dead animal. He then shot Cecil with a crossbow, badly injuring him, and tracked him for 40 hours before killing him with a gun.

Palmer’s actions have been condemned by animal conservationists, politicians, and a horde of angry Yelp reviewers. 

But how illegal was the hunt exactly? 

According to Lion Aid, a charity that lobbies against trophy hunting, many aspects of Cecil’s murder were both legal and standard practice for big game hunters in Zimbabwe. 

The organization’s website explains that it’s completely legal to bait lions, shoot them with a crossbow from a blind, and hunt them outside a national park in a private hunting concession, as Palmer did. It’s also not illegal to kill a lion wearing a radio tracking collar, as Cecil was. 

However, the area that Cecil was killed in was not assigned a lion quota. Normally, when a hunter kills a lion in an area without a lion quota, he or she will simply lie and say the hunt took place in an area with a lion quota, according to Lion Aid. However, Cecil’s tracking collar, which traced his movements for an Oxford University research project, made this impossible. 

Palmer is currently being sought on poaching charges, and his guides were arrested earlier this month. But Lion Aid is dubious that Palmer will be punished severely or even prosecuted at all for his actions, since "a client usually has no idea about the laws and regulations of the country he is hunting in – he just buys a safari and then places himself in the hands of his professional hunter guide."

This isn’t Palmer’s first hunting-related brush with the law. In 2008, the longtime big game hunter pleaded guilty to making false statements to the US Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin. Palmer had a permit to hunt but shot the bear outside the authorized zone in 2006, then claimed it was killed elsewhere, according to court documents. This case resulted in one year probation and a fine of nearly $3,000.

This report includes materials from the Associated Press. 

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