Facing inquiries on two continents, Walter J. Palmer has contacted federal authorities and indicated his willingness to cooperate with investigations into the shooting of a much-loved research lion in Zimbabwe last month.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which opened an inquiry this week and sought contact with the Twin Cities big-game hunter, said a representative for Palmer contacted its office late Thursday.
“The Service’s investigation is ongoing and appreciates that Dr. Palmer’s representative voluntarily reached out,” a spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said in a statement Friday afternoon.
Palmer, who has maintained silence since Tuesday, made the overture just hours before wildlife authorities in Zimbabwe called for his extradition to their country. “We want him tried in Zimbabwe because he violated our laws,” said Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s minister for environment, water and climate, at a news conference Friday. “Police should take the first step to approach the prosecutor general, who will approach the Americans. The processes have already started.”
Attorneys in the United States noted that Muchinguri speaks for her ministry, not the entire Zimbabwe government, but her request came as other officials sharpened their accusations against the American trophy hunter.
Authorities in Zimbabwe described him as an accomplice to an illegal hunt, and prosecutors have said flatly that his guide and outfitter lacked the permits to kill a lion legally. They also have suggested that bribery was involved in the hunt, because the party lacked the necessary documents, but they have not specified what charges might be laid against Palmer.
Palmer’s professional guide, Theo Bronkhorst, was charged this week with failing to prevent an illegal hunt. The owner of the farm where Palmer was hunting is expected to face charges next week.
“This is pure poaching,” said Richard Chibuwe, deputy chief of mission at Zimbabwe’s embassy in Washington, D.C. “The guys knew exactly what they were doing.”
Calls from ordinary Americans as well as Zimbabwe nationals expressing outrage over the lion’s killing have been pouring into the embassy, Chibuwe said. “If he is innocent, why should he be hesitant to appear before the court?” he said.
Palmer did not respond to phone calls from the Star Tribune on Friday. In a statement earlier in the week, he said he had no idea at the time that he was shooting at a prized lion, expressed deep regret for the killing, and said he believed his guides had all the necessary permits for the hunt.
Other big-game hunters, meanwhile, said it’s about time Palmer stepped forward.
“I was in Cuba for a week, and I heard about it there,” exclaimed Peter L. Horn II, a professional hunter from Pound Ridge, N.Y.
Horn, like other hunters, said Palmer was wrong to delay. “I would never have disappeared,” he said. “The longer you wait to turn yourself in, the more people think you’re guilty.”
Horn expressed little sympathy for Palmer, an experienced trophy hunter who has hunted in Africa before. “Anybody I know would never do anything like this,” he said. “Poaching in Africa is not to be confused with legal hunting.”
It’s not uncommon for Americans to hunt lions in Africa. Government reports say about 450 African lion kills are brought back each year to the United States.
Extraditions are rare
If Zimbabwe does file charges and submit a formal extradition request, it could be many months before Palmer learns his fate. The extradition process would wind through several government agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, and would involve delicate legal rulings and international diplomacy.
“This is not an ordinary criminal case,” said R.J. Zayed, a former federal prosecutor who now practices law at Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis and has handled several extraditions. “These things don’t happen all the time.”
The U.S. has extradited just 54 to 72 fugitives annually in recent years, a number that includes foreign citizens as well as U.S. citizens and covers all reasons for extradition. No one knows how many were for environmental prosecutions, but it’s believed to be a very small number.
If Zimbabwe were to proceed, an extradition request would go something like this:
Zimbabwe sends a package with formal criminal charges to the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe can ask for a provisional arrest warrant.
The U.S. State Department reviews the request. The request gets a second, more detailed review by the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs. If it approves, it ships the request to the U.S. attorney’s office, generally in the state where the person lives, so potentially Minnesota.
If the U.S. attorney files a criminal complaint, Palmer would make a court appearance, then go through bail and extradition hearings. A final ruling would come from the U.S. secretary of state.
Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis declined to comment Friday.
White House gets petition
By Friday afternoon, the international furor over Cecil’s killing seemed to wane, although a petition bearing thousands of signatures reached the White House and the story continued to make headlines on CNN, the New York Times and other news organizations.
There was also much speculation about whether the dentist would ever be able to resume his practice in the Twin Cities.
Palmer, 55, an avid trophy hunter and bow-and-arrow marksman, shot and wounded the lion with a compound bow about July 1 during a guided nighttime hunt outside of Hwange National Park. After tracking led them to the wounded lion about 40 hours later, the hunting party finished Cecil off with a gunshot.
This is not the first time Palmer has killed a lion in Africa. He has been listed in a record book compiled by Safari Club International, an organization for big-game hunters, which shows Palmer has been to Africa at least twice before. In March 2005, he killed a lion, buffalo and a rhinoceros. He returned to the continent and killed an elephant in February 2013. In total, Safari Club records show he has killed 43 animals, all with a bow and arrow, including a polar bear, four other bears, and a mountain lion. The club said this week that it was suspending the memberships of Palmer and his Zimbabwe-based guide.
Palmer has run afoul of the law at least twice over the years, with a guilty plea and fine in 2008 for misleading federal authorities about a bear he killed illegally in Wisconsin and a misdemeanor for fishing without a license in Minnesota’s Otter Tail County.
Jennifer Bjorhus can be reached at 612-673-4683.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.