The South African president, Jacob Zuma, has angered conservationists in neighbouring Zimbabwe by speculating that the experienced hunter who killed Cecil just saw a “nice lion” and was unaware of the animal’s importance.
Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota in the US, has claimed he was led to believe the hunt that ended in the lion’s death was legal and he had no idea the big cat was “a known, local favourite” and part of a research study.
Zuma appeared to sympathise with Palmer’s defence when questioned by the Guardian at a press conference in the South African capital, Pretoria, on Tuesday.
He said: “What it sounds like from a distance [is] that the hunter did not know that Cecil was so popular, just saw a lion, and killed a lion, and it’s Cecil, and Cecil is very well loved and it caused a problem, because everyone wants to go and see Cecil. I think it’s just an incident.”
Prompting laughter in the room, Zuma quipped: “I was told by somebody that there is a brother of Cecil. Who? There is Jericho. Thanks God, now people will ask if Jericho is among these lions and they will not shoot, I would imagine.
“Really I didn’t think it could become such a big issue, but it is a big issue because Cecil was loved. But I think maybe that the fellow did not know. And he just took a nice lion and it was Cecil.”
Zuma did not respond to a question about South Africa’s own hunting laws. He said earlier: “I was wondering, what is the surname of Cecil? But that wouldn’t get an answer. Well, I think Zimbabwe has laws about hunting and everything … It’s a matter that Zimbabweans can deal with the hunters. In every country there is hunting, there are rules, etc.”
The jocular tone contrasted with that of the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, who on Monday castigated the “vandals who come from all over” to hunt, and the UK environment minister, Rory Stewart, who described the killing of Cecil as a “deeply horrifying situation” and a “disgusting action”.
The hunt early last month provoked a worldwide backlash when it emerged that Cecil was a popular attraction among visitors to the Hwange national park and was wearing a tracking collar as part of an Oxford University research project.
Zuma’s remarks were swiftly condemned in Zimbabwe on Tuesday. Emmanuel Fundira, the president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, said: “I’m surprised that President Zuma would make a such a comment with regard to an animal hunted in a neighbouring country. I find it very undiplomatic and very unfair to comment on a sovereign state.”
Fundira insisted Palmer knew what he was doing when he shot Cecil with a bow and arrow just outside a protected area. He said: “He has hunted lion before and it’s clear he was looking for a lion with a unique and bigger mane. Cecil was a known icon in Zimbabwean tourism. As far as I’m concerned, this was definitely premeditated poaching. It was unethical.”
Johnny Rodrigues, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, said of Palmer: “I don’t believe he didn’t realise. He knew he was there and he was after the trophy. It’s a very feeble excuse. He would have known it was the wrong place to go and shoot. He can’t turn around and say, ‘I didn’t know’. That’s no excuse at all.”
Responding to the South African president’s comments, he said: “Zuma can say what he likes. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
Palmer, a seasoned trophy hunter, became the target of abuse over the incident and went into hiding after protests outside his dental practice. Police in south-west Florida said last week that vandals had spraypainted the words “lion killer” on the garage door of his holiday home.
Palmer has apologised for killing Cecil and appeared to blame Theo Bronkhorst, the Zimbabwean hunter who led the expedition, for misleading him. Bronkhorst has been charged with failing to prevent an illegal hunt and, if convicted, faces up to 15 years in prison. His trial has been set for 28 September.