The hunter has become the hunted. The predator is now the quarry. Cecil the lion, a once-mighty symbol of the natural world, has been slain, and now it is his killer, Walter Palmer, who is on the run.

The Minnesota dentist used a professional bow early last month to shoot the 13-year-old lion, as it apparently offers a greater challenge for the trophy connoisseur.

The weapon of choice for his critics worldwide is the blunt instrument of social media, through which he has been bombarded not just with opprobrium but extravagant expressions of revulsion and death threats.

There's a cinematic sweep to this story, one that spans two continents, two worlds, the heat and dust of the Zimbabwe bush and the sterile surgery of a United States health professional.

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The borders of Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park were clearly demarcated; within them, Cecil, a long-standing tourist draw, was protected and safe. Lured beyond them, however, the black-maned male in his prime, was fair - unfair - game.

Less defined are the moral boundaries. Just because something is legal doesn't make it right.

But is the international furore so huge only because of this particular lion? Does it extend to all lions? Ought it include all instances of killing for killing's sake? Or is it primarily repugnant because so much cash - in this instance US$50,000 ($75,440) - is involved?

Lion-hunting by the wealthy is a sizeable money-spinner in many African countries. Figures from 2006 show that 18,500 hunters paid US$200 million to shoot lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and impala in Africa. Of these, lions carry the highest price tag.

In South Africa, more than 5000 lions (weirdly, although they are not native, tigers, too) are bred in captivity for the specific purpose - the number of living wild is nearer the 2000 mark.

They are ignobly killed in what is known as "canned hunting"; let loose with a full belly in a large enclosure, they pad about half-heartedly until they are shot.

Walter J Palmer with a Leopard that he shot with his bow and arrow. Photo / Supplied
Walter J Palmer with a Leopard that he shot with his bow and arrow. Photo / Supplied

If I'm baffled as to why anyone would want to kill something so magnificent as a lion for killing's sake (and believe me, I am), I'm downright contemptuous of such a cowardly, uneven contest.

Exponents say legalised hunting helps preserve the habitat for Africa's 32,000 wild lions, whose numbers are in worrying decline, by providing revenue and thus a disincentive to turn the land over to farming, which has a certain logic.

But there is something obscene about the grisly photo album of Walter Palmer, a man who, rather like an armed and dangerous Walter Mitty, lives a fantasy life.

Here is Palmer bare-chested, embracing the still-warm corpse of a once beautiful, lithe leopard. There he is, grinning beside a bison he has just shot.

What is going through his head as he slings his arm proprietorially across a rhino? Judging from his facial expression, he believes that it makes him appear macho.

On the contrary, it just amplifies his inadequacy.

It is a national disease: according to National Geographic magazine, 60 per cent of all lion trophies are shipped to America.

The US Government is currently deciding whether to add lions to its Endangered Species Act, which would ban their import.

Until then, the arguments of legality versus morality will rumble on.

Purists would argue that it's anomalous to confer special status on lions when we intensively farm livestock such as pigs. But some creatures comprise a precious part of our natural heritage, and it's incumbent on us to protect them from the unequal contest with hunters.

Palmer, who has wisely gone off the grid for now, says he regrets shooting Cecil. I bet he does. I also hope it is for the right reason.

I wish him no ill and I hope that the Twitter abuse subsides - mob rule is no more palatable than a bespectacled dentist with warped dreams of dispatching the most iconic species on the planet.

But if the needless slaughter of Cecil the lion has sparked off a meaningful debate about the morality of big-game hunting, his death will not have been entirely in vain.