South African President Jacob Zuma calls killing of Cecil the lion 'just an incident'

Cecil the lion is seen at Hwange National Parks in this undated handout picture received July 31.
Cecil the lion is seen at Hwange National Parks in this undated handout picture received July 31.PHOTO: REUTERS

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - South African President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday brushed aside the killing of Zimbabwean lion Cecil, dismissing the animal's death as "just an incident".

Describing the death of Cecil as an honest mistake, Zuma said the hunter - American Walter Palmer - was probably unaware he was shooting one of Zimbabwe's most beloved animals.

"The hunter did not know Cecil was so popular, he just saw a lion and killed a lion," said Zuma, giggling as he spoke at a press briefing in Pretoria. "My feeling is that the fellow did not know."

Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, paid US$55,000 (S$77,212) to shoot a lion with a bow and arrow in July.

The hunt provoked worldwide outrage when it emerged that Cecil was a favourite attraction among visitors to Zimbawbe's Hwange National Park and was wearing a tracking collar as part of an Oxford University research project Zimbabwe has requested that the United States extradite Palmer to face charges over the hunt.

Palmer's guide on the expedition, Theo Bronkhorst, appeared in court last week.

He was granted US$1,000-bail pending his trial on September 28 on charges of organising an illegal hunt.

Zimbabwe introduced strict hunting restrictions earlier this month in the wake of the killing, but lifted most of them on Monday.

Zuma said Zimbabwe had the appropriate legislation in place to regulate the hunting industry.

"I think Zimbabwe has laws about hunting and everything," he said. "I don't think it's a matter we could really debate that much."

Like Zimbabwe, South Africa sees a substantial amount of tourism revenue come from wealthy overseas clients who pay big money to hunt lions, elephants and buffalos.

According to South Africa's environment ministry, the hunting industry generates about 6.2 billion rand (S$681 million) a year.