Zimbabwe hunter given bail over death of Cecil the lion

Hwange (Zimbabwe) (AFP) - A professional hunter was granted bail on charges of "failing to prevent an illegal hunt" after he organised the expedition on which an American dentist killed Zimbabwe's beloved Cecil the lion.

The lion's death triggered an outpouring of anger around the world after it was alleged that he was lured out of Hwange National Park and shot with a powerful bow and arrow.

Theo Bronkhorst, wearing a green sleeveless jacket, was ordered Wednesday to lodge a $1,000 deposit at the court in Hwange in northwestern Zimbabwe after a day of negotiations between police, prosecutors and lawyers.

Co-accused Honest Ndlovu, a land owner, was scheduled to appear in court on Thursday on separate charges.

"After hearing submissions from both counsel, bail is hereby granted," magistrate Lindiwe Maphosa said, setting Bronkhorst's trial date for August 5.

Dentist Walter Palmer, an experienced trophy hunter from Minnesota whose whereabouts are unknown, is thought to have left Zimbabwe some weeks ago.

- 'Destroyed the family' -

He has been targeted with vicious abuse after he admitted killing Cecil and said he had been misled by his guides.

Images of the dentist grinning over a small zoo's worth of dead prey from previous hunts -- a limp leopard held up to the camera, a rhino, an elk, a big horned sheep, a cape buffalo -- circulated widely on the Internet and fed a firestorm of criticism.

A family friend said that Bronkhorst believed he had acted legally during the hunt this month and was shocked to find that the lion was wearing a tracking collar, fitted as part of a University of Oxford research programme.

"He is a very professional, very honest conservationist," Ian Ferguson told AFP on Wednesday.

"This has just about destroyed the family, his wife has virtually had a nervous breakdown.

"The whole thing was perfectly legal. When they found the lion had a collar... he went and reported to the national parks immediately.

"This was just a terrible, very unfortunate act."

Palmer issued a statement on Tuesday, saying he had "relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt".

"I have not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or in the US about this situation, but will assist them in any inquiries they may have," he said.

Amid a fierce outpouring of anger, radical US animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) even called for Palmer to be hanged.

"He needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged," Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA US, said in a statement.

"All wild animals are beloved by their own mates and infants, but to hunters like this overblown, over-privileged little man... they are merely targets to kill, decapitate, and hang up on a wall as a trophy."

The professor who spent years following Cecil's movements meanwhile urged those moved by his death to donate to conservation efforts to save Africa's dwindling population of the giant cats.

- 'Iconic' animal -

"This has obviously caused an enormous stir internationally with millions of people concerned about it," said Professor David Macdonald, founding director of the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, which had tracked Cecil since 2008.

"If all of those millions of people were to donate just a little bit of money to our project then it would revolutionise our capacity to work for the conservation of lions."

Cecil, aged about 13, was described by safari operators as an "iconic" animal recognised by many visitors to Hwange due to his distinctive black mane.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force charity said Palmer and Bronkhorst had gone out at night with a spotlight and tied a dead animal to their vehicle to lure Cecil into range.

It alleged Palmer's first shot did not kill the lion, which was eventually shot dead 40 hours later.

Palmer is well-known in US hunting circles as an expert shot with his bow and arrow.

His kill list of 43 different animals also includes a polar bear, mountain lion, an elephant and an African lion he killed in 2005, according to club records obtained by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

His Twitter and Facebook accounts and website of his dental practice -- in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota -- were shut down after being flooded with blistering attacks.

A makeshift memorial formed outside his shuttered office as people outraged by the story dropped off stuffed animals and flowers.

Hwange national park attracted 50,000 visitors last year, about half of them from abroad.

Some hunting of lions and other large animals is legal in countries such as South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, where permits are issued allowing hunters to kill certain beasts.

It is outlawed, however, in Zimbabwe's national parks.

Bronkhurst, whose son Zane is being sought for questioning, was ordered by the judge to report to a police station three times a week and surrender his passport.

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