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Zimbabwe calls for dentist to be extradited over Cecil the lion: Is US likely to cooperate?

Zimbabwe has started extradition procedures against Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. The number of US citizens extradited each year to face charges in other countries is less than 100.

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    Protestors gather outside Dr. Walter James Palmer's dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Palmer reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill Cecil, a black-maned lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Now government officials in the African nation are calling for his extradition.
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Zimbabwe government officials are calling for the extradition of the American dentist who has admitted to shooting Cecil the lion earlier this month.

Oppah Muchinguri, the African nation's environment minister, said that Zimbabwe has already started extradition procedures against Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. She said that the two local guides who helped Palmer hunt Cecil have already appeared in front of local courts.

"Unfortunately it was too late to apprehend the foreign poacher as he had already absconded to his country of origin," Ms. Muchinguri said. "We are appealing to the responsible authorities for his extradition to Zimbabwe so that he be made accountable."

Mr. Palmer has not been seen in public since news of Cecil’s killing broke, but he released a statement Tuesday apologizing for "the taking of this lion" and denying any knowledge that the hunt was not legal. 

"I have not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or in the US about this situation, but will assist them in any inquiries they may have," he added.

The Washington Post reports that Palmer may have violated the US Lacey Act, a conservation law meant to shield animals from harm by prohibiting trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.

Public outrage over Palmer’s shooting of the treasured lion has gone global, with social media exploding with calls for his extradition to the African nation to face charges. A We the People petition to extradite Palmer to Zimbabwe has already received more than 170,000 signatures and the promise of an official response by the White House.

The extradition treaty between the US and Zimbabwe is broad, but mainly focused on things such as organized crime, terrorism, and drug trafficking.

Jeff Flocken, the North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said it is unlikely that Palmer will be extradited to face charges overseas.

"Typically, wildlife crimes don’t rise to [that] level of scrutiny and prosecution," he told Minnesota’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

He noted that the US allows the legal import of some 450 African lion trophies annually, and US citizens are responsible for about 60 percent of African lions recreationally hunted each year.

While data on extradition for wildlife trafficking is not specifically tracked, extradition in general is relatively rare in the United States – with less than 100 people annually under all categories being extradited in recent years, Justice Department officials say.  

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is also investigating the circumstances of the lion's death, and said Friday on Twitter that it was working with a representative of Palmer.

Palmer allegedly paid $50,000 to go crossbow hunting for a lion near Hwange National Park in the western part of the country, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, in a statement. The hunters reportedly lured Cecil out of the protected sanctuary by tying a dead animal on their vehicle.

Wildlife officials say Palmer shot Cecil with a crossbow, but he didn't die immediately. The hunter and his guides then tracked the wounded animal for 40 hours before shooting and killing him, according to Mr. Rodrigues.

When they discovered the lion was Cecil, the hunters tried to destroy the GPS tracking collar that was around the lion’s neck, but failed, Rodrigues said. 

"This must be condemned in the strongest possible terms by all genuine, animal-loving conservationists who believe in sustainable utilization of natural resources," Muchinguri said.

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