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HWANGE NATIONAL PARK, Zimbabwe – No fence separates Hwange National Park from the outside world. When Cecil the lion was lured onto an adjacent farm in an allegedly illegal hunt, he had to cross only a set of rarely used railroad tracks to go from a protected area into a kill zone.
The killing of the popular lion by an American hunter, which triggered outrage far beyond Zimbabwe's borders, has strengthened resolve here to enforce hunting regulations, but there's no talk of fencing the huge reserve or an outright ban on hunting.
President Robert Mugabe said this week in a major speech that Zimbabweans failed to protect Cecil. He also criticized "vandals who come from all over" to steal the African country's resources.
Lion researcher Brent Stapelkamp has stood many times in the middle of the railway tracks that lie on the western edge of the 14,650 square-kilometer (5,656 sq. mile) park, holding aloft an antenna on a tracking device to locate lions fitted with GPS collars.
"Literally this is the boundary between full protection on that side of the tracks and the hunting concession on this side of the tracks," Stapelkamp, who had kept track of Cecil for seven years as part of an Oxford University study, told Associated Press journalists. As he spoke, giraffes and kudu wandered on the park side of the tracks but no animals could be seen on the other side. Stapelkamp said rampant poaching of small game on private land and inadequate watering holes is keeping animals mostly on the park side.
No one, including Stapelkamp, is advocating that the park be fenced. Doing so would prevent wildlife migrations.
Furthermore, he and many other conservationists say that legal, controlled hunting is beneficial to wildlife. Among the controls: A client needs to be accompanied by a licensed hunter; land where the hunt is to take place must have a hunting quota as well as a permit to hunt a specific animal.
Even collared lions can be legally hunted with proper licenses, although a dozen were killed illegally in the nine years Stapelkamp has been doing research here, the lion expert said. Lack of evidence kept the poachers from being prosecuted, he added. New rules issued on Monday ban hunting of "iconic animals pending amendment of the current hunting regulations."
In addition to the killing of Cecil, prosecutors are also pursuing another case of an allegedly illegal hunt — also by an American and Zimbabweans — of a different lion in April just outside the park.
Lions and elephants roam into and out of the park, with the elephants sometimes going across unfenced private land into Botswana, where water is available when the dry season hits Hwange. Up to 500 lions are believed to live in the Hwange area, with around 2,000 lions in the entire transnational region, according to Jimmiel Mandima of the African Wildlife Foundation.
On a recent tour of the park, AP journalists saw dozens of elephants roaming through open plains and thickets of trees. A cheetah relaxed under a tree. A lion walked through scorched grasslands into shady woods amid the throb of a diesel-powered borehole pump that helps keep watering holes filled in this low rainfall area.
Cecil was shot by American dentist James Walter Palmer with a bow in early July, less than a mile outside the park boundary. Palmer paid $50,000 to hunt the lion, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. He has said that he relied on his Zimbabwean guides to ensure a legal hunt.
Mandima, who has worked closely with Zimbabwean and Zambian wildlife authorities, said in a telephone interview from his office in Washington that some people involved in hunting in Zimbabwe have likely taken advantage of "loopholes and weaknesses" in hunting regulations. However, he said there's no indication the whole industry is out of control.
Revenue from hunting on state land is supposed to go to the coffers of wildlife authorities, while funds paid by hunters operating on "community land" should go to local officials and community development projects, including schools and clinics, Mandima said. "The experience is mixed," he said when asked if that is being done.
Lion-hunting regulations are based in part on quotas of game animals and those quotas stem from estimates on lion populations that inevitably have a "margin of error," Mandima said. The estimates are compiled from lion population censuses, wildlife sightings, observations by local community members and other data.
Many government officials, hunters, safari operators, and those who took over white-owned reserves as part of the government's controversial land-reform program, say the current system works but needs to be strengthened by more prosecutions and tighter licensing rules.
"We have a good legal framework in place but we want to do more to protect the lions, the elephants and all those animals that draw tourists to Zimbabwe," Prince Mupazviriho, permanent secretary in the ministry of environment, water and climate, told AP. "Hunting regulations for these animals will definitely be reviewed. Mechanisms should be put in place for closer monitoring of these hunts."
He said the furor from the illegal killing of Cecil shouldn't result in a ban on legalized hunting.
"The animals will be in greater danger if we ban hunting," he said. "Conservation efforts will suffer, especially for landowners."
Stapelkamp agreed, saying landowners make a living through legal hunting and have an incentive to keep their property undeveloped for animals to roam through.
Gesturing at the vast sun-splashed grasslands and woodlands on the private-land side of the railroad tracks, Stapelkamp said: "This land stays as a wildlife habitat because of the money that hunting brings."
Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia contributed to this report from Johannesburg.