Zimbabwe: Minnesota dentist faces charge of lion poaching

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Zimbabwean police said James Palmer shot a well-known, protected lion known as Cecil with a crossbow in a killing that has outraged conservationists and others.

Authorities said two Zimbabwean men would appear in court for helping lure the lion outside of its protected area to kill it. Palmer faces poaching charges, according to police spokeswoman Charity Charamba.

Palmer allegedly paid $50,000 to hunt the lion, Zimbabwean conservationists said, though the hunter and is local partners maintain they didn’t know the lion they killed was protected.

Walter James Palmer was identified on Tuesday by both the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe as the American hunter, a name that police then confirmed.

Palmer issued a statement saying he was unaware that the lion was so well known and part of a study.

“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,” he said, maintaining that to his knowledge, everything about the hunt had been legal.

Attempts to reach Palmer, 55, at his two listed home numbers and his office by phone and in person were unsuccessful.

Palmer, of the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin. Palmer had a permit to hunt but shot the animal outside the authorized zone in 2006, then tried to pass it off as being killed elsewhere, according to court documents. He was given one year probation and fined nearly $3,000.

Palmer has several hunts on record with the Pope and Young Club, where archers register big game taken in North America for posterity, according to the club’s director of records, Glenn Hisey.

Hisey said he didn’t have immediate access to records showing the types and number of animals killed by Palmer during hunts, but noted that any club records involve legal hunts “taken under our rules of fair chase.” African game wouldn’t be eligible.

Hisey, who said he doesn’t have a personal rapport with Palme, said he alerted the group’s board that Palmer’s ethics were being called into question and his domestic records could be jeopardized if he’s found to have done something illegal abroad.

The two arrested Zimbabwean men – a professional hunter and a farm owner – face poaching charges, the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority and the Safari Operators Association said in a joint statement. Killing the lion was illegal because the farm owner did not have a hunting permit, the joint statement said. If convicted, the men face up to 15 years in prison.

The lion is believed to have been killed on July 1 in western Zimbabwe’s wildlife-rich Hwange region, its carcass discovered days later by trackers, the statement said.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said in a statement that Palmer paid the $50,000 for the hunt. During a nighttime hunt, the men tied a dead animal to their car to lure the lion out of a national park, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. Palmer is believed to have shot it with a crossbow, injuring the animal. The wounded lion was found 40 hours later, and shot dead with a gun, Rodrigues said in the statement. They removed the tracking collar and tried to destroy it. The lion was then beheaded and skinned.

The Zimbabwean hunter accused in the case claimed that Cecil was not specifically targeted, and the group only learning after the fact that they had killed a well-known lion, according to the Safari Operators Association.

Cecil, recognizable by his black mane, was being studied by an Oxford University research program led by Dr. Andrew Loveridge. For more information on the project , read: Cecil and the conservation of lions.

Tourists regularly spotted his characteristic mane in the park over the last 13 years, said Lion Aid, also a conservation group.

A Facebook page for Palmer’s Minnesota dental practice was taken offline Tuesday after users flooded it with comments condemning Palmer’s involvement in the hunt. Hundreds of similar comments inundated a page for his dental practice on review platform Yelp, which prior to Tuesday had only three comments.

A state database of Minnesota dentist licensure lists the status of Palmer’s registration as active, but “not practicing in state.”

Several news sources reported that records from the Minnesota Board of Dentistry also show that Mr. Palmer was the subject of a sexual harassment complaint that was settled in 2006. A receptionist alleged that he had made indecent comments to her. Mr. Palmer admitted no wrongdoing and agreed to pay out more than $127,000.

Associated Press reporters Amy Forliti in Bloomington, Minnesota, Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Hannah Cushman from Chicago contributed to this report. PW’s Barbara Russum contributed to the story.

Photo: AP


Farai Mutsaka
Farai Mutsaka

Farai Mutsaka is a Harare, Zimbabwe-based journalist for Associated Press.