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Zimbabwean authorities hunt Spaniard accused of killing Cecil the lion

European allegedly paid €50,000 for chance to kill tourist attraction, who was found headless after being shot with a bow and arrow and tracked for 40 hours

Authorities in Zimbabwe are trying track down a Spaniard who allegedly paid park guides €50,000 (£35,000) for the chance to kill Cecil, one of Africa’s most famous lions, who was the star attraction at the Hwange national park. The creature was found skinned and headless on the outskirts of the park.

The 13-year-old lion was wearing a GPS collar as part of a research project that Oxford University has been running since 1999, making it possible to trace its last movements when it was tricked into leaving the park and shot with a bow and arrow. The hunters then tracked the dying animal for 40 hours before they killed it with a rifle.

Bait, in the form of a freshly killed animal, was used to tempt Cecil out of the park, a technique commonly used so that hunters can “legally” kill protected lions.

“Cecil’s death is a tragedy, not only because he was a symbol of Zimbabwe but because now we have to give up for dead his six cubs, as a new male won’t allow them to live so as to encourage Cecil’s three females to mate,” said Johnny Rodrigues, head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. “The two people who accompanied the hunter have been arrested but we haven’t yet tracked down the hunter, who is Spanish.”

The Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association admitted that its members were involved and that the case was being investigated. It claims it was a private safari and therefore not illegal, but the government insists that the lion lived on the reserve and came under its protection.

The Oxford University study was looking into the impact of sports hunting on lions living in the safari area surrounding the national park. The research found that 34 of 62 tagged lions died during the study period. 24 were shot by sport hunters. Sport hunters in the safari areas surrounding the park killed 72% of tagged adult males from the study area.

Dr Andrew Loveridge, one of the principal researchers on the project, said that “hunting predators on the boundaries of national parks such as Hwange causes significant disturbance and knock-on effects” such as infanticide when new males enter the prides.

Police are seeking the lion’s remains among the country’s taxidermists. The Spanish conservation organisation Chelui4lions has written to Cites de España, the body that oversees the import of endangered species, asking it to prevent the importing of Cecil’s head as a trophy.

“From 2007 to 2012 Spain was the country that imported the most lion trophies from South Africa. During this period it imported 450 heads, compared to 100 in Germany. Europe needs to ban these lion hunting trophies altogether,” said Luis Muñoz, a Chelui4lions spokesman.

“What hunter, what sort of demented person, would want to kill a magnificent adult lion, known to and photographed by all the park’s visitors?” Muñoz said. “We’re ashamed of the fact that in Spain there are rich madmen who pay for the pleasure of killing wild animals such as lions.”

Bryan Orford, a professional wildlife guide who has worked in Hwange and filmed Cecil many times, told National Geographic that the lion was the park’s “biggest tourist attraction”. Orford calculates that with tourists from just one nearby lodge collectively paying €8,000 per day, Zimbabwe would have brought in more in just five days by having Cecil’s photograph taken rather than being shot by someone paying a one-off fee of €50,000.

The incident, which occurred earlier this month and has only just come to light, has caused outrage in Zimbabwe, coming only days after the ZCTF revealed that 23 elephant calves had been separated from their herds in Hwange and exported to zoos in China and the United Arab Emirates. The Zimbabwean government insists the trade is legal and measures are in place to guarantee the animals’ wellbeing.

This article was amended on Sunday 26 July. An earlier version said Cecil had been wearing a GPS collar since 1999. It should have said that the GPS project has been running since 1999. A reference to elephant cubs has also been corrected to calves.