AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Zimbabwe is in mourning for an iconic lion from the country's Hwange National Park. Cecil the Lion was 13 years old and was the park's most famous animal. Earlier this month, the animal was lured away from protected areas and silently shot with a bow and arrow. The hunter was Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist who may have paid up to $50,000 for the kill. The killing has reignited debate about sport hunting in Zimbabwe. Johnny Rodrigues is with the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a natural resources advocacy group there. Welcome to the program.
JOHNNY RODRIGUES: Sure.
CORNISH: Tell us a little bit about Cecil, why this particular lion was so famous.
RODRIGUES: He was very, very popular. I mean, he's been around for 13 years, and a lot of people have seen him.
CORNISH: For people who may not know at all what Cecil looks like, can you describe this lion? What made him special?
RODRIGUES: It's a beautiful big mane, black mane, very, you know, shiny animal, very tame, very beautiful. You know, it's something to watch with pride. And you know, he left some cubs behind. And the (unintelligible) is that once he's gone, the next male will come along, kill all the cubs and take over the pride for his bloodline.
CORNISH: And help us understand how a protected lion could end up being hunted. What are people saying happened on that night?
RODRIGUES: Well, what happened - they lured the lion out of the national park and baited an area. And then they came in when the lion was feeding at night, and they shot it with a bow and arrow, with a spotlight.
CORNISH: And Cecil was one of many lions that are actually being researched, so he was wearing a tag, correct?
RODRIGUES: Yes, he was.
CORNISH: So how were people able to figure out who might have done it? How would you track this down?
RODRIGUES: Well, we got the information that the hunt - there was no quota, no license or permit for that area and that the people that actually lured the animal didn't have a permit. There was no allocation for these animals in that area, and that's how it was found out.
CORNISH: How big an industry is big-game hunting for Zimbabwe?
RODRIGUES: It's very big, and the whole thing - this has been going on too long. We've already lost about 23 lions - collared lions, which are being studied and researched on, and this is where the problem comes in.
CORNISH: Hunters would argue that they are doing some sort of sustainable hunting, right? There is a system. There are licenses. There are permits. Where is the system falling down?
RODRIGUES: Well, they're not enforcing the acts, and the - they're not abiding by the rules. You've got unethical hunters, and people do what they like because they can bribe their way out of a crime.
CORNISH: So it sounds like there's still a threat even in protected zones.
CORNISH: Now, how do you think this could change - this killing of Cecil the Lion - change the conversation about how Zimbabwe manages protected areas?
RODRIGUES: Well, we have to bring in bans on certain species of animals so that they, like the lion and the endangered animals - so that this doesn't occur again.
CORNISH: Johnny Rodrigues - he heads the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. The man accused of shooting Cecil the Lion, Walter Palmer, has released a statement today. In it, he says he relied on his local guides, who, quote, "secured all proper permits." And it ends with this. "I deeply regret my that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly illegally resulted in the taking of this lion."
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