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Friday 15 November 2019

Zimbabwe calls for extradition of dentist in hunting storm

SIGNS OF HIGH FEELINGS: Protestors in Minnesota make their views plain
SIGNS OF HIGH FEELINGS: Protestors in Minnesota make their views plain

Peta Thorncroft and Aislinn Laing

Zimbabwe has called for the US dentist who shot Cecil the lion dead during a hunting trip to be extradited back to Africa to face poaching charges, which could carry a lengthy prison sentence.

The move came as it emerged that Dr Walter Palmer could also face a potential five-year jail term in the US and a $20,000 fine for breaching the Lacey Act, which enforces the legal protection for endangered species across the world.

Oppah Muchinguri, the Zimbabwean environment minister, said Dr Palmer was a "foreign poacher" who had financed an illegal hunt of Cecil, an "iconic attraction" in the country's famed Hwange National Park.

She also suggested that Dr Palmer had the additional motive of wanting to tarnish Zimbabwe's image, and said the country's prosecutor general had initiated the extradition request.

"The illegal killing was deliberate," she told a news conference. "We are appealing to the responsible authorities for his extradition to Zimbabwe so that he can be held accountable for his illegal actions."

Dr Palmer, from Minnesota, shot Cecil on July 1 on private land near the national park. He said he believed the hunt was legal.

The hunter who accompanied him said the pair had been "devastated" when they realised Cecil was wearing a radio collar because he was part of an academic study by Oxford University.

However, Dr Palmer reportedly told his escort afterwards to find him a large elephant to shoot.

Mrs Muchinguri said Dr Palmer, the professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst and the landowner Honest Ndlovu were part of an "organised gang". She said that Cecil's killing was "deliberate" because it had taken place on land where the owner had not been allocated a quota for lions, and a bow and arrow was used "to conceal the illegal hunt by using a means that would not alert the rangers on patrol".

"As we frantically try to protect our wildlife from organised gangs such as this one, there are people who can connive to undermine Zimbabwean laws," she said.

She said Dr Palmer would be sought on charges of financing an illegal hunt and for violation of Section 123 of the Parks and Wildlife Act, which controls the use of bows and arrows in hunting.

According to the act, illegal hunting and poaching can carry up to 20 years' imprisonment but can also be dealt with by a fine.

Legal sources close to the prosecution of the professional hunter said the maximum penalty they faced for conducting and allowing an illegal hunt was $400 or a one-year prison sentence.

Richard Chibuwe, the deputy chief of mission at Zimbabwe's embassy in Washington, said extradition would be a "last resort".

Zimbabwe has an extradition treaty with the US that has been in effect since April 2000 for cases in which a crime applicable in both countries is alleged to have been committed.

Extraditions from the US are rare, however, and the dubious human rights record of Zimbabwe's regime would likely come into play.

Professor Fred Morrison, a constitutional and international law specialist at the University of Minnesota, said a prosecution in the US was more likely.

"One possibility is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that prohibits US citizens from bribing foreign government officials," he said.

"It is alleged that he paid the game refuge officials in Zimbabwe to shoot the mortally injured lion. That might or might not be deemed a bribe."

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