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Who killed Mopane? Hunt on for Philip Smith who shot lion and made him suffer for 24 hours

An unnamed hunter killed beloved Mopane on August 5, close to where Cecil the lion was killed in 2015, triggering outrage in Zimbabwe
UPDATED AUG 17, 2021
A lion looks out from its enclosure at Sydney Zoo on February 24, 2020, in Sydney, Australia (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
A lion looks out from its enclosure at Sydney Zoo on February 24, 2020, in Sydney, Australia (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

A nationwide hunt has begun in Zimbabwe after an American hunter has been accused of killing Mopane, a male lion that was the head of two prides. Some local websites and conservation groups have named the hunter, as a man from Missouri. He is believed to have killed Mopane very close to where Cecil died. The incident, which took place at Hwange National Park, is reported to have occurred August 5.

Lion hunting, while banned in some parts of the world is still an immensely popular sport for many. In 2019, we reported on the death of Pero Jelenic, a Croatian trophy hunter who was killed by a stray bullet while attempting to hunt a lion in South Africa. In March that year, Franchesca Esplin was forced to delete her social media presence after uploading a bloody photo with a dead mountain lion, she bragged she killed. It's not just hunters that are killing the animals. The 2019 heatwave killed Sheba the lioness at a Noth Carolina sanctuary.


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Hunters, however, remain the biggest threat to the big cats. Data remains scarce, but a 2016 report by Humane Society estimated 5,600 African lions were killed and imported to the US between 2005 and 2014. Few of these hunts have made the news like Palmer's killing of Cecil. Now, the death of Mopane has shocked conservationists, who are on the hunt, literally, for the person responsible.

An image of Mopane the lion. (World Heritage Species/Facebook)

Who killed Mopane?

The death of Mopane was made news by the Humane Society, via a press release on August 13. "A majestic lion named Mopane was allegedly killed by an American hunter outside of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe last week," they said. "With his impressive mane, Mopane was well-known to local tour guides and international tourists visiting the area to catch a glimpse of him," the release added. According to the release, Mopane was the head of two prides of lions with another lion named Sidhule. Unfortunately, Sidhule was killed in 2019.

It is believed Mopane was lured out of the park with bait and killed in the same place that Cecil was killed. The Daily Mail reported that Mopane was hunted down by an American tourist, with help from Dennis Nyakane, a guide for South African hunting operator Chattaronga Safaris. Nyakane was reportedly enlisted via Dinguzulu Safaris ZTA, the same operator Palmer hired when he hunted Cecil. 

Africa Geographic provided further details on the death of Mopane, including the identity of the hunter. According to the group Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting, the hunter is Phillip Smith, a "professional hunter" from Columbia, Missouri. He is reportedly a physical therapist. According to a LinkedIn profile matching that description, Smith appears to be the CEO of Peak Sport and Spine, a physical therapy center. We could not confirm if Smith is actually responsible, but numerous conservation websites identify him as the hunter. We could not find a Facebook or Instagram profile for Smith, so confirm if he loves to hunt. 

The website reported that "Mopane did not die immediately. Instead, he apparently spent the next 24 hours wounded, after which time he was finally killed." The site tried to contact Dinguzulu Safaris and Nyakane, but both have not responded to calls. Mopane has reportedly been a popular attraction in the past, with several ads now resurfacing of operators offering the chance to hunt him for as much as $27,450. 

A screenshot showing an ad to hunt Mopane the lion in Zimbabwe. (Facebook)

Death sparks outrage, concerns

There is now an "international outcry" over Mopane's death, according to Humane Society. "Mopane was a father and played a significant role in his pride. Without him, his pride is now vulnerable to takeover by another male or group of males, which may lead to the killing of the cubs and females in his pride," Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society said. "The perverse pleasure some people derive from killing iconic animals brought this noble lion’s life to a tragic end. Another trophy hunter spending tens of thousands of dollars on a globe-trotting thrill-to-kill escapade shows humanity at its worst," she added.

Some Hwange tourism stakeholders also issued an anonymous statement to Africa Geographic. "We, as stakeholders in Hwange, are forced to speak anonymously due to imminent threats posed by hunters and ZimParks profiteering from the hunting of lions. We are absolutely devastated by the killing of Mopane... The killing of dominant males on the boundary areas is not conservation. It is unsustainable and will lead to the further demise of an already depleted and dysfunctional lion population," they said. 

Between 2009 and 2018, 7,667 lion trophies were traded internationally, including into the U.S. and the European Union the Humane Society noted. As of now, there are an estimated 20,000 mature lions in the wild, but that number could sharply reduce as hunting trips become more frequent. To make matters worse, trophy hunting is not illegal in Zimbabwe, and hunters can often get licenses to import their kills back to the states via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.