Walter Palmer, the wealthy big-game hunter who killed a famous lion, could be headed back to Africa — if the Zimbabwe government has its way.
On Friday, officials in Zimbabwe said they intended to press ahead with a request to extradite Palmer for killing a lion known as Cecil just outside a sanctuary where the animal was protected. Later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it had finally contacted Palmer, a dentist who had shuttered his practice in Minnesota a few days ago and disappeared.
The Fish and Wildlife agency’s law enforcement office said that a representative for Palmer “voluntarily reached out to the service” Thursday afternoon and that its “investigation is ongoing.”
The investigation could lead to charges under U.S. law. If Palmer is charged with similar offenses by Zimbabwe, that would clear the way for him to be extradited to that country under a treaty Zimbabwe entered into with the United States in July 1997. It calls for persons of interest to be extradited between the two countries in cases that include a conspiracy or attempt to commit a crime, aiding and abetting a crime, or being an accessory.
The extradition process cannot begin until Zimbabwe officially issues a charge and requests Palmer’s return. Oppah Muchinguri, the nation’s minister of the environment and climate, vowed to press charges in a Friday news conference in the capital, Harare.
“I have already consulted with the authorities within the police force who are responsible for arresting the criminal. We have certain processes we have to follow,” Muchinguri said, according to the Associated Press. “. . . The processes have already started.”
Legal experts said Palmer wouldn’t have a lot of options to fight a return to Zimbabwe to face trial. “Once Zimbabwe provides a charge, it depends on how fast the U.S. moves,” said Stephen Vladeck, an American University law professor who specializes in international affairs.
“Anyone subject to extradition has the right to challenge it, but the grounds upon which he can successfully oppose extradition is fairly narrow,” Vladeck said. “He would have to argue that it violates the treaty or somehow that it violates his rights.”
Palmer’s lawyers could cite the poor condition of Zimbabwe’s prisons, a humanitarian concern, as a reason to deny extradition. The prisons were recently described as a “hellhole” in a report by the Zimbabwe Independent, a daily business newspaper, according to its Web site.
“I think it could factor into the State Department’s analysis,” said Jens David Ohlin, an expert in international and criminal law who teaches at Cornell University. U.S. officials “could decide the prison conditions are too harsh and we don’t want our citizens to spend time in jail there.”
The extradition process could take years to play out. If a federal court approves Zimbabwe’s request to extradite him, Palmer could appeal the decision, experts said. If he were to lose on appeal, the State Department would make the final decision.
Ohlin said the State Department would be hard-pressed to turn down a formal extradition request from Zimbabwe. If it did, in a worst-case scenario Zimbabwe could become a sanctuary for criminals who flee crimes committed in the United States.
“If the U.S. doesn’t play ball in this case,” Ohlin said, “in the future if the U.S. wants someone extradited, Zimbabwe can say, ‘We’re not going to help you out.’ ”
Palmer has been harshly criticized in the United States, even by fellow hunters. Safari Club International, which works with foreign governments to arrange legal big-game hunts, suspended his membership.
Among conservation groups, anger has been even more heated. The Humane Society of the United States called for an end to what it called “pay-to-slay” hunts such as Palmer’s.
Zimbabweans believe the July 1 hunt, in which Cecil was lured out of the Hwange National Park sanctuary with fresh meat and shot by Palmer with a bow and arrow, was illegal. Cecil limped, wounded, and was pursued for nearly two days before finally being killed. Then, the lion was beheaded.
Amid the public uproar after he was identified as the killer early this week, Palmer, who paid about $50,000 for the hunt, issued a statement saying that he regretted slaying “a known, local favorite” and that local guides had misled him.
When authorities became aware of the slaying, they wanted to detain Palmer along with two guides, professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst and Honest Trymore Ndlovu, the owner of the land where the poaching took place. They were released on $1,000 bail, the Associated Press reported.
“Unfortunately, it was too late to apprehend the foreign poacher as he had already absconded to his country of origin,” Muchinguri said. “We are appealing to the responsible authorities for his extradition to Zimbabwe so that he [can] be made accountable.”