Zimbabwe will not charge American dentist Walter Palmer for killing its most prized lion in July because he had obtained legal authority to conduct the hunt, a cabinet minister said on Monday, angering conservationists.
Palmer, a lifelong big-game hunter from Minnesota, stoked a global controversy when he killed Cecil, a rare black-maned lion, with a bow and arrow outside Hwange National Park in Western Zimbabwe.
But Palmer's hunting papers were in order, Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri said on Monday. Consequently, he could not be charged.
"We approached the police and then the Prosecutor General, and it turned out that Palmer came to Zimbabwe because all the papers were in order," Muchinguri-Kashiri told reporters.
Muchinguri-Kashiri said Palmer was free to visit Zimbabwe as a tourist but not as a hunter. The implication was he would not be issued the permits a hunter needs.
The environment minister's comments immediately drew the ire of the animal conservation group Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, which maintained that Palmer had committed a crime and said it planned to pursue legal action against him in the U.S.
Palmer could not be reached immediately for comment on the environment minister's statement to reporters.
"The fact is the law was broken. We are going to get our advocates in America to actually see what they can do to bring justice to him," said Johnny Rodrigues, the head of the task force, which first reported news of Cecil's killing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has previously said it was investigating the killing of the lion.
Two more people still face charges related to Cecil's killing. Both allegedly were involved in using bait to lure Cecil out of his habitat in Hwange National Park so he could be killed.
Theo Bronkhorst, a professional hunter in Zimbabwe, is charged with breaching hunting rules in connection with the hunt in which Cecil was killed. A game park owner is also charged with allowing an illegal hunt. Both have denied the charges.
Bronkhorst is expected to appear in a Hwange court on Thursday where a magistrate will rule on a request by his lawyers that his indictment be quashed.
Parks officials said prosecutors would bring Cecil's head, which the hunters took as a trophy, to court as an exhibit if the trial goes ahead.
Palmer, 55, has previously said that the hunt was legal and no one in the hunting party realized the targeted lion was Cecil, a well-known tourist attraction in the park.
Wildlife hunting, which earned $45 million last year, is an important source of money for the southern African nation, still recovering from a catastrophic recession between 1999-2008.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe, additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by James Macharia)