Cecil the lion: Two men appear in Zimbabwe court over 'illegal' hunt - as US hunter Walter Thompson goes into hiding

The American dentist is believed to have returned to the US

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The Independent Online

Two men have appeared in court in Zimbabwe over the killing of Cecil the lion, while the American dentist who paid to shoot him with a bow and arrow continues to deny any wrongdoing and a barrage of abuse and criticism.

Walter Palmer, from Minneapolis, is believed to have returned to the US after the hunt earlier this month where he allegedly paid about $50,000 (£32,000) to kill the famous lion.

A local charity claims Cecil took 40 hours to die after being shot by an arrow and was skinned and beheaded, with the head taken as a trophy for Dr Palmer.

The lion’s death has provoked global outrage, forcing the practice where he worked to close and seeing people threaten to “hunt” Dr Palmer and kill him in revenge in a tide of online abuse.

“Nothing in this world would give me greater pleasure than to see your head mounted on a wall, your carcass defiled, degraded and paraded as you did to Cecil and near countless other animals,” one person on his practice’s Facebook page.

Celebrities have also condemned the hunt, with Sharon Osborne writing: "I hope that #WalterPalmer loses his home, his practice & his money. He has already lost his soul."

Almost 300,000 people have also signed a petition to Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe demanding "justice" for Cecil and calling for hunting reforms.

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Cecil was probably Zimbabwe's most famous lion and the star attraction of Hwange national park

Dr Palmer has not yet been charged with any offence but the guide who took him on the hunt with Bushman Safaris and owner of the land where Cecil was killed appeared in court today.

Hunter Theo Bronchorst and landowner Honest Trymore Ndlovu have been charged with poaching offences and released on bail.

The case will be heard at a court in Victoria Falls, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWM) said.

Johnny Rodrigues, chairman for Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told The Independent anyone convicted of involvement in the illegal hunt could face up to 10 years in prison.

Officials alleged that the pair conspired to hunt Cecil and had no permit or quota allowing them to legally kill the lion.

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Cecil lived in Hwange National Park, where he was well-known and loved by locals and visitors

The 13-year-old animal was found beheaded and skinned near the Hwange National Park, where he was beloved by tourists and local residents alike.

Hunters are believed to have lured him out of the safety of the park and on to private land using bait and shot him with the bow – a silent weapon increasingly used by hunters trying to evade arrest.

Dr Palmer said he has not heard from US or Zimbabwean authorities over possible poaching charges and was not aware of Cecil’s status until after he was dead.

“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt,” he said in a statement.

“I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”

According to court records seen by media in the US, Dr Palmer pleaded guilty to making false statements to the US Fish and Wildlife Service about a where he shot a black bear dead in 2006.

Despite having a hunting permit, he killed the animal outside of an authorised zone and then tried to claim it had died elsewhere, earning one year probation and fined nearly $3,000 (£1,280).

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