Walter Palmer has been called a sharp shot with a bow and arrow — good enough to pin a playing card from 100 yards away. He has been at it for years. His many kills — those by bow and arrow — are listed in a worldwide big game hunting record book: buffalo, deer, moose, mountain lion, polar bear.
“I don’t have a golf game,” Palmer told the New York Times back in 2009.
Indeed. It’s his hunting game that seems to have gotten him into trouble.
Palmer has been accused in an illegal hunt-and-kill that occurred earlier this month in a national park in Zimbabwe. Authorities there said he shot and killed the nation’s beloved black mane beauty named Cecil the lion, skinned it and took its head for a prize. Palmer’s professional guide and the land owner are set to appear in court Wednesday on poaching charges.
But many people are pointing the finger at Palmer, a 55-year-old dentist from Minnesota with an affinity for big game trophy hunting.
The Internet has been in an uproar with people calling him a “monster” and a “criminal” and referring to his hobby as “barbaric and immoral.” The Yelp page for his dentist practice has been accumulating hostile comments almost faster than others can read them. His Web site has become inaccessible and thousand have signed their names to an online petition condemning his kill.
At Palmer’s home in Eden Prairie, where he lives with his wife and two children, and at his dental office people have created memorials, leaving stuffed lions to represent the one that died by his hands. His office was closed Tuesday, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. By that night, phone numbers listed for him gave a busy signal and e-mails went unanswered.
“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite,” he said Tuesday in a statement to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”
The incident has reignited emotions about the ever-controversial practice of big game hunting, a sport that draws thousands of deep-pocketed Americans to the African savanna each year in search of beautiful beasts they can boast about back home. It has called into question a practice that leaves animals — both wild and captive — dead and maimed. Many who despise it say it’s about morality. Even some who champion it say Cecil’s death was wrong.
“I find it so pathetic that ‘man’ has the need to hunt exotic creatures,” one Facebook user wrote on a page for Palmer’s dental practice. “What is so appalling is the lack of respect for our natural world and its delicate eco-web. … To say I am shocked and disgusted is an understatement.”
But Palmer is just one player in a big business known as trophy hunting — a sport as old as man. It has been said that President Theodore Roosevelt was a natural, trapping or killing more than 11,000 animals during a 1909 African safari. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and James “Wildman” Morehead were also known for their interest in bagging trophy animals.
The pride of those who kill these creatures is evident on their faces when they pose with their kills. Social media is overrun with their photos, such as those posted on the Safari Club’s Online Record Book on Facebook.
It was one night in early July when Palmer hunted Cecil the lion. He was taken to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe where he and his team spotted the lion. The creature was lured outside the park with a dead animal and Palmer allegedly wounded him with a bow and arrow, according to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. For 40 hours, they hunted him down. Then Palmer allegedly shot him with a rifle. He paid $50,000 for the kill.
The lion was skinned and beheaded outside the park, authorities said.
But Palmer said in his statement that he hired professional guides who had gotten the proper permits. He said he thought everything was “legal and properly handled and conducted.” The professional hunter, Theo Bronchorst, and the land owner, Honest Trymore Ndlovu, are now facing poaching charges. Authorities said the lion lived on a reserve and was protected.
Zimbabwean authorities told the Associated Press that Palmer is looking at poaching charges, though Palmer said he had not been contacted by police.
“Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion,” Palmer said.
South Africa’s big game hunting industry earns more than $744 million each year, according to Voice of America. Annually, it is responsible for creating 70,000 jobs and for attracting 9,000 trophy hunters, most of whom come from the United States. In some cases, such safaris are actually “canned” hunts in which people pay as much as $20,000 to hunt animals that have been bred for hunting and enclosed in a large space.
When it’s done legally, the money is supposed to fuel conservation work.
Hunters argue the sport is also intended to deter illegal hunting, protecting animals like Cecil. Even in the wild, they claim, hunting can help weed out the weak so the population can thrive and ensure the proverbial survival of the fittest.
Regulated hunting has been backed by agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund.
“For every captive-bred lion hunted, you’re saving animals in the wild,” Pieter Potgieter with the South African Predator Association told National Geographic.
But many animal rights advocates argue that the sport actually encourages illegal activity. They say the animal heads go home with hunters as trophies and the animal skin and bones seep into the black market.
Obviously, there’s the moral argument as well.
“You have to decide what conservation is,” Chris Mercer with the Campaign Against Canned Hunting told National Geographic. “You can’t just look at numbers of animals. I would define real conservation as the preservation of natural functioning ecosystems. On ranches where farmers buy animals, put them on their land, bring the hunters on to shoot them, and then go back and buy more — that has nothing to do with conservation.”
The death of Cecil the lion at the hands of Palmer and all the circumstances surrounding it have brought the ongoing debate to the forefront as animal rights activists have been concerned for years about Africa’s wild lions, whose population has reportedly plummeted over the past century from an estimated 200,000 to about 30,000, according to National Geographic.
And, for some, Palmer has become the face of the poaching industry.
Indeed, this isn’t Palmer’s first problematic kill. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about killing a black bear in Wisconsin. He shot the animal outside the area that he had a permit to hunt in and then lied to authorities about where he had killed it, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He was sentenced to one year of probation and fined close to $3,000.
But some in the business say this time it’s not Palmer’s fault.
Jeff Martinell, who owns a safari booking business called Luxury Hunts, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune it’s the guides’ responsibility to know and obey the local laws and regulations.
“If he bought a lion hunt and they take him on a lion hunt, he [doesn’t] know where you’re going,” he said. “The finger should be pointed at the professional hunter, not the hunter himself.”
More about the death of Cecil the lion: