A conservation charity told The Local that Spaniards are still flocking to Africa to hunt big game, and that in a recent five-year period more lion trophy heads arrived in Spain than any other nation apart from the USA.
Authorities have intensified the search for a Spaniard who allegedly paid a fee that represents more than twice the average yearly salary in Spain, to kill a lion which was then skinned and decapitated so that the head could be taken home as a trophy.
The death of Cecil, a 13-year-old male lion with a black mane, who was head of a pride within Zimbabwe’s Hwange National park and a long favourite of visitors, has caused global outrage.
He was first shot with a bow and arrow which wounded him, then tracked for two days until the fatal shot from a rifle was delivered.
It is thought that the lion, which was fitted with a GPS collar for an Oxford University research project, was lured out of the park by hunters so that it could be “legally” killed.
“The word coming out of Zimbabwe is that the client was a Spanish hunter,” Luis Muñoz from the NGO Chelui4lions, told The Local.
“His identity is being protected but I believe it is just a matter of time before his name becomes known,” Muñoz insisted. “I am sure it can’t remain hidden for long.”
The Spanish lion charity, which works with the Born Free Foundation, said that the killing of Cecil was abominable but highlighted the continued bad practices involved in so called “legal” game hunting.
“This has come to light because Cecil was a famous lion but it is certainly not the first time this sort of thing has happened. It isn’t a one off mistake,” said Muñoz in a telephone interview from his home in Madrid.
“The fact is that lion was protected in a national park and was lured out to be shot at night with a bow and arrow, the most cruel way to kill an animal like that. He then suffered for some 40 hours before being finally killed and then his head was hacked off.
“The fact is they used a permit to kill a famous lion, realized their mistake and tried to destroy the evidence of the tracker and get away as quickly as possible,” said Muñoz.
A large proportion of big game hunters to private safari parks in Africa come from Spain.
A recent report compiled from export permits issued by South Africa alone show that between 2007 and 2012, Spain was the second biggest importer of lion trophy heads in the world, after the US.
“In that period the heads of 443 lions that had been shot by Spaniards arrived in Spain to be displayed as trophies on their walls,” said Muñoz. “It is a shocking figure and more than four times more than Germany, the next country in terms of imports.”
The data showed 2,492 lion heads arrived in the USA and 99 arrived in Germany.
“The fact that these wealthy Spaniards are willing to spend such huge amounts of money basically on target practice, and mostly of lions that have been brought up by humans to be shot in what is in effect an enclosure, is a disgrace,” added Muñoz.
Spain has a long reputation as hunting nation. King Juan Carlos caused a scandal in 2012 when it emerged he had been hunting elephants in Botswana.
The hunter responsible for Cecil’s death was a client of a well-known safari company.
In a statement, the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association (ZPHGA) confirmed that the professional hunter in the group involved in the killing was one of its members and was suspended with immediate effect.
“ZPHGA reiterates that it will not tolerate illegal hunting or other unethical practices by any of its members,” the organisation said.
Zimbabwean authorities have launched an investigation into the death of Cecil and are trying to trace the head of the lion but fear it may already have left the country.
Spanish authorities have been alerted to look out for someone attempting to bring a lion head into the country. “Such things are not illegal although they now have to be declared,” explained Muñoz.
“Legally I don’t think there is much recourse, Spain is not going to do much to one of its citizens who killed a lion with a licence in a country where it is legal to do so,” he said.
But he added that it was important to find that hunter and make his identity public.
“We are talking about a very wealthy person and there were not too many Spaniards in Zimbabwe on July 1st,” said Muñoz.
“There are lots of people on the ground looking into it. Passenger lists, private planes, safari accommodation, all the names will be checked until we get to the bottom of this. This hunter will eventually be named and shamed,” he said.
UPDATE: On Tuesday July 28th a day after this story was published, Zimbabwe authorities identified the hunter who killed Cecil not as a Spaniard as first thought but as a dentist from Minnesota, USA named Walter Palmer, according to The Telegraph.