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Zimbabwe wants Walter Palmer extradited in killing of Cecil the lion

The American dentist who killed Cecil the lion a month ago in Zimbabwe had financed an illegal hunt and should be extradited to the southern African nation to face justice, Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri says.

American philanthropists offer to match donations for Oxford University lion project

Zimbabwean Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Oppah Muchinguri speaks to reporters in Harare on Friday. Zimbabwe intends to seek the extradition of an American dentist who killed a lion that was lured out of a national park and killed, she said. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

The American dentist who killed Cecil the lion a month ago in Zimbabwe paid for an illegal hunt and should be extradited to the southern African nation to face justice, Zimbabwe's environment minister said on Friday.

In a news conference, Oppah Muchinguri referred to 55-year-old Walter Palmer as a "foreign poacher," and said she understood that Zimbabwe's prosecutor general had started the process to have him extradited from the United States.

"We are appealing to the responsible authorities for his extradition to Zimbabwe so that he can be held accountable for his illegal action," she said.

Muchinguri also said Palmer's use of a bow and arrow to kill the lion, who is said to have been lured out of Hwange National Park with bait before being shot, was in contravention of Zimbabwean hunting regulations.

Palmer has admitted killing the 13-year-old predator, a favourite with foreign tourists and the subject of an Oxford University study, but said he had hired professional guides and believed all the necessary hunting permits were in order.

The Minnesota dentist and trophy hunter has not been seen since his identity was revealed this week by Zimbabwean conservationists, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday afternoon it was contacted by a representative of Palmer.

The agency is investigating the killing to see if it was part of a conspiracy to violate U.S. laws against illegal wildlife trading. 

In Washington, a Zimbabwean diplomat said the embassy was not aware that extradition proceedings had been initiated by his government.

Richard Chibuwe, deputy chief of the mission, said Zimbabwe takes the case very seriously and noted that two Zimbabwean men face court proceedings for helping Palmer.

On Wednesday, a Zimbabwean court charged local professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst with failing to prevent Palmer from unlawfully killing Cecil.

"People really feel strongly that he must also face trial," Chibuwe said of Palmer.

The U.S. Justice Department said it does not comment on extradition requests. Palmer must be charged in Zimbabwe before he can be extradited.

The killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by American dentist Walter Palmer is being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see if it was part of a conspiracy to violate U.S. laws against illegal wildlife trading. (EPA/Trophy Hunt America)

Palmer, a life-long big game hunter, managed to return to the United States before the authorities were aware of the controversy around Cecil's death.

"It was too late to apprehend the foreign poacher because he had already absconded to his country of origin," Muchinguri said.

Legal, political hurdles

The killing has sparked social media outrage against Palmer in the United States. The White House said on Thursday it would review a public petition of more than 100,000 signatures to have him extradited.

Lawyer Alec Muchadehama said no American had been extradited to Zimbabwe since the treaty was signed, and that Harare would face legal and political hurdles with Palmer.

First, it has to apply to U.S. courts and satisfy them that Palmer committed an offence and that he would be jailed for more than a year if convicted. Courts in Zimbabwe consider a fine first for lion poachers before imposing a jail term, he said.

"They [U.S. courts] may actually doubt the competence of the judiciary here to try him in an objective manner, particularly given these prejudicial pronouncements that the politicians are already making," said Muchadehama.

Money pours in

A pair of U.S. philanthropists with a passion for wild cats pledged Friday to match new donations to Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Unit — the researchers who were tracking the movements of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.

Tom Kaplan, a natural resource investor whose net worth was put by Forbes magazine at $1 billion US, and his wife, Daphne, will match donations made after 3 p.m. GMT Friday up to a total value of $100,000.

The Kaplans hope to help the Oxford researchers raise half a million pounds to further their work.

"We have to seize this moment where we can all make a difference," Tom Kaplan said in a statement, adding that if the "death of Cecil can lead to the saving of many more lions, then some good can come from tragedy."

With files from The Associated Press

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