cecil the lion
Cecil the lion and US dentist Walter Palmer

The Minnesota dentist Water Palmer who killed Cecil the Lion has said in an interview he feels he acted legally when he shot the beloved animal in Zimbabwe and has endured an ordeal after being hounded by the public over the slaying.

Palmer, who is returning to work at his suburban dentistry practice, granted the interview to the AP and the Minneapolis Star Tribune after more than a month of lying low and trying to avoid the public spotlight.

The dentist and recreational hunter said he had been stunned to discover he had killed one of Zimbabwe's most important animals and did not know Cecil was part of an Oxford University study. The adult male lion had been fitted with a GPS collar for research.

"If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study obviously I wouldn't have taken it," Palmer said. "Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.

However, Palmer refused to rule out returning to Zimbabwe to hunt there in the future. "I don't know about the future," he said. "Zimbabwe has been a wonderful country for me to hunt in, and I have always followed the laws."

Walter Palmer black bear
US dentist Walter Palmer poses with the dead black bear he killed illegally in Wisconsin in September 2006Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources

He contradicted accounts in the media that Cecil, renowned as a star attraction at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, had wandered around injured for 40 hours after he was shot with an arrow.

The killing of Cecil the lion and the attention his death drew to big game hunting in Africa captured the world's imagination, causing massive outcry. Palmer, who quickly became the focal point of that attention, said he was "heartbroken" over the public vilification which had been particularly hard on his wife and daughter.

"I don't understand that level of humanity to come after people not involved at all," Palmer said. He explained that violent threats had been made against him and that a holiday home he kept in Florida had been vandalised.

Over the past week the Minnesotan has been forced to take security precautions and would not tell the media where he had been staying. He also declined to discuss how much money he paid to kill Cecil but the price appears to have been thousands of dollars.

On top of the outrage over the killing of Cecil, Palmer pleaded guilty to making false statements to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and received one-year probation and a fine just under $3,000 (£1,800) after he shot and killed a black bear in Wisconsin.

Zimbabwe changed its regulation over big game hunting and three US airlines have stopped allowing customers to ship hunting trophies.