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Tourist suspected of killing famous African lion thought hunt was legal

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) — An avid Minnesota hunter accused of illegally killing a protected lion in Zimbabwe said Tuesday that he thought everything about his trip was legal and wasn't aware of the animal's status "until the end of the hunt."

Walter Palmer, who has a felony record in the U.S. related to shooting a black bear in Wisconsin, released his statement through a public relations firm after being identified by officials as the American involved in the hunt. Authorities in Zimbabwe say Palmer is being sought on poaching charges, but Palmer said he hasn't heard from U.S. or Zimbabwean authorities.

"I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt," said Palmer, a dentist who lives in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie.

Palmer's whereabouts were unknown Tuesday. No one answered the door at his home, and a woman who came out of his dental office in nearby Bloomington said he wasn't there or taking patients Tuesday. Phone calls to listed home numbers went unanswered.

According to U.S. court records, Palmer pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin.

Palmer had a permit to hunt but shot the animal outside the authorized zone in 2006, then tried to pass it off as being killed elsewhere, according to court documents. He was given one year probation and fined nearly $3,000.

Doug Kelley, a former U.S. attorney and Palmer's attorney in the bear case, was unavailable for immediate comment Tuesday, according to his assistant.

Palmer had been identified by the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe and police as the American facing poaching charges for the crossbow killing of Cecil, a well-known and protected lion whose death has outraged animal conservationists and others.

Local authorities allege the lion was lured from a protected area and killed in early July. Zimbabwean conservationists said the American allegedly paid $50,000 for the trip.

Palmer has several hunts on record with the Pope and Young Club, where archers register big game taken in North America for posterity, according to the club's director of records, Glenn Hisey. Hisey said he didn't have immediate access to records showing the types and number of animals killed by Palmer during hunts, but noted that any club records involve legal hunts "taken under our rules of fair chase."

Although African game wouldn't be eligible, Hisey — who said he doesn't have a personal rapport with Palmer — said he alerted the group's board that Palmer's ethics were being called into question. He said Palmer's domestic records could be jeopardized if he's found to have done something illegal abroad.

A Facebook page for Palmer's Minnesota dental practice was taken offline Tuesday after users flooded it with comments condemning Palmer's involvement in the hunt. Hundreds of similar comments inundated a page for his dental practice on the review platform Yelp, which prior to Tuesday had only three comments.

A state database of Minnesota dentist licensure lists the status of Palmer's registration as active, but "not practicing in state."

This is a story update. The previous story is below.

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwean police said Tuesday they are searching for an American who allegedly shot a well-known, protected lion with a crossbow in a killing that has outraged conservationists and others.

The American allegedly paid $50,000 to kill the lion named Cecil, Zimbabwean conservationists said. Authorities on Tuesday said two Zimbabwean men will appear in court for allegedly helping with the hunt. The American faces poaching charges, according to police spokeswoman Charity Charamba.

Walter James Palmer was identified on Tuesday by both the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe as the American hunter, a name that police then confirmed.

"We arrested two people and now we are looking for Palmer in connection with the same case," said Charamba.

Emmanuel Fundira, the president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, said at a news conference that Palmer is from Minnesota and his current whereabouts were unknown.

Phone calls to two listed home phone numbers for Palmer rang busy on Tuesday. Phone calls to his dental office in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington also went unanswered, and a message couldn't be left because the office mailbox was full.

The front door to the office building was locked when a reporter approached Tuesday morning. A woman who came to the door said Palmer was not in the office and was not seeing patients on Tuesday.

The two arrested Zimbabwean men — a professional hunter and a farm owner — face poaching charges, the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority and the Safari Operators Association said in a joint statement. Killing the lion was illegal because the farm owner did not have a hunting permit, the joint statement said. The lion was skinned and beheaded. The hunters tried to destroy the lion's collar, fitted with a tracking device, but failed, the statement said.

If convicted, the men face up to 15 years in prison.

The lion is believed to have been killed on July 1 in western Zimbabwe's wildlife-rich Hwange region, its carcass discovered days later by trackers, the statement said.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said in a statement that an American paid the $50,000 for the hunt. During a nighttime hunt, the men tied a dead animal to their car to lure the lion out of a national park, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. The American is believed to have shot it with a crossbow, injuring the animal. The wounded lion was found 40 hours later, and shot dead with a gun, Rodrigues said in the statement.

"The saddest part of all is that now that Cecil is dead, the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho will most likely kill all Cecil's cubs," said Rodrigues.

The Zimbabwean hunter accused in the case claimed that Cecil was not specifically targeted, and the group only learning after the fact that they had killed a well-known lion, according to the Safari Operators Association.

Cecil, recognizable by his black mane, was being studied by an Oxford University research program, the conservation group said.

Tourists regularly spotted his characteristic mane in the park over the last 13 years, said Lion Aid, also a conservation group.

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Associated Press reporters Amy Forliti in Bloomington, Minnesota, and Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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