By Philimon Bulawayo and Mike Saburi
HWANGE, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - Two Zimbabweans who were paid $50,000 by an American hunter who killed 'Cecil', the southern African country's best-known lion, arrived in court on Wednesday to face poaching charges, in a case that has triggered widespread revulsion at trophy hunting.
Walter James Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, has also been accused by wildlife officials of killing the animal without a permit on July 1. Palmer, who has left Zimbabwe, says he killed the lion but believed it was a legal hunt.
Local hunter Theo Bronkhorst and private game park owner Honest Ndlovu, who assisted Palmer, were escorted into the courthouse in Hwange, 800 km (500 miles) west of Harare, by plain-clothes detectives.
They did not speak to reporters.
Since it emerged this week that he killed Cecil with a bow and arrow, Palmer has been pilloried on the Internet, with many people wishing him dead.
"This is disgusting. I hope you get thrown in a cage with hungry lions," Julie Lu wrote on the Facebook page of his dental practice.
Palmer said on Tuesday he had hired professional guides who secured hunting permits and deeply regretted taking the lion. He added that he had not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or the United States and would assist in any inquiries.
The Zimbabwe police and government have not commented.
If found guilty, the two Zimbabweans could be fined $20,000 and possibly jailed for up to 10 years.
Cecil was fitted with a GPS collar for a research project by scientists from Oxford University and was one of the oldest and most famous in Zimbabwe.
The university's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit said it had been tracking Cecil since 2008 and was "deeply saddened" by his death.
"Insofar as this happened illegally we consider it deeply reprehensible," it said in a statement. It was working closely with Zimbabwe's National Parks authorities to support their "meticulous work" in prosecuting the case.
The unit also said Cecil's death would be likely to trigger a power struggle in the pride, resulting in the death of other male lions as well as Cecil's offspring.
"When a male lion is killed, because of the way their society works, a likely consequence is the overthrow and death of other adult male members of his weakened coalition, and the subsequent infanticide of his cubs," it said.
Palmer's hunting has attracted scrutiny in the past. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to lying to a U.S. wildlife agent about a black bear he killed in Wisconsin two years before.
He was accused of killing it 40 miles outside a permitted zone, hauling the carcass back into the approved area and certifying falsely that it was killed there. He was
sentenced to one year probation and fined $2,938.
In the Hwange case, Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force chairman Johnny Rodrigues said Cecil was lured out of the park with bait before being shot.
The incident has triggered fierce debate over the commercial 'trophy' hunting of African big game.
Like many countries, Zimbabwe issues annual permits that allow foreign hunters to kill wildlife such as elephant, buffalo and lion legally, arguing that the funds raised allow the government to fund conservation efforts.
"Sustainable trophy hunting is part of well-managed wildlife conservation. It creates incentives for people to look after wildlife," said Adri Kitshoff, chief executive of the Professional Hunters' Association of South Africa.
"It's easy to fall into the trap of emotions and not focus on facts."
However, Edward Bourke, chairman of the Australia-based Saving The Lion Foundation, said Cecil's death showed the dangers of legal hunting.
"There is enough global pressure to push for change. There is an opportunity to offer alternatives, including international aid for establishing safe haven environments like national parks or eco-tourism zones," he said.
One of the few countries to avoid Cecil hysteria was Zimbabwe, where most people are more preoccupied with putting food on the table and finding work in an economy suffering 80 percent unemployment.
To the state-run Herald newspaper, the most remarkable aspect of the case was the lion's name, which it linked to British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, after whom the former Rhodesia named.
"How someone thought it such a good idea to christen a lion after the infamous plunderer and murderer who roamed dangerously across Africa can only be a matter of conjecture," it said in an editorial.
(Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Additional reporting by Joe Brock; Editing by Ed Cropley and Giles Elgood)