So an American Dentist Shot Cecil the Lion. Now What?
An American dentist shot a lion in Zimbabwe. Could he really be extradited to Zimbabwe?
When Walter Palmer admitted through a statement on Tuesday that he had in fact shot Cecil the lion on a trip to Zimbabwe in early July, he probably didn’t realize he could actually be extradited for it.
But speaking at a news conference in Harare on Friday, Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, called the dentist from Minnesota a “foreign poacher” and said he should be brought back to Zimbabwe to face criminal charges.
As of Friday, Zimbabwe had not issued an official request for his extradition, but Muchinguri told reporters that the country’s prosecutor general had begun the formal legal request to U.S. authorities. Palmer reportedly shot the animal with a bow and arrow after his group tracked it for close to 40 hours, then beheaded and skinned it. Palmer left the country before the controversy arose, which is why Zimbabwean authorities now intend to extradite him.
Back in America, meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement agency had difficulty tracking down Palmer, a representative for whom finally responded to their contact request on Thursday afternoon.
Their agents are working to determine what exactly happened in Zimbabwe and whether it’s a violation of U.S. law. According to a spokesman for the service, it’s unclear whether Palmer technically violated the Lacey Act, which prohibits the trade of wildlife, fish, and plants that were acquired illegally.
Palmer, who allegedly paid his guides $54,000 to lure the famous lion out of his reserve, left its body in Zimbabwe.
But a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service told Foreign Policy that “the legal question becomes, ‘Can you violate the Lacey Act through a conspiracy of intent to violate?’”
“And that’s something the Department of Justice will have to decide on, following our investigation,” he said.
The incident has drawn a tremendous amount of attention, mostly outrage, from animal rights advocates in the United States. In fact, it has produced a lot more reaction than other news events this week, including the plight of thousands of migrants storming the tunnel that connects France to England, or even the death announcement of a notorious Taliban leader in Afghanistan.
The door of Palmer’s dentistry practice in Bloomington, Minnesota, has been covered with signs insulting his hunting habits, and a pile of stuffed animals sits on the stoop. By Thursday, a petition sent to the White House had garnered more than 100,000 signatures. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, “There will be a forthcoming White House response.”
On Friday, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced plans for legislation to extend existing restrictions on the imports or exports of animals considered for inclusion on the Endangered Species Act. And the proposed law is even named for the lion: Menendez has called it Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large (CECIL) Animal Trophies Act.
The FWS suggested naming lions to the threatened species list in 2014, but so far nothing has been made official.
As for Palmer’s fate, what happens next will depend on questions in law, politics, and diplomacy.
But American University law professor Steve Vladeck told FP that extradition, which is ultimately decided by the secretary of state, tends to take politics and diplomacy into account a lot more than it does the legal aspects of the case. And Menendez’s upcoming legislation is ironic, he said, because it might in fact prove that what Palmer did in Zimbabwe was not against U.S. law at the time.
“There’s a lot of wiggle room even in extradition treaties for political and diplomatic considerations,” Vladeck said. “What I think remains to be seen is which way that will tip the scale in this case.”
That President Barack Obama just got back from a trip to Africa, where illegal poaching was a focal point of his conversations with East African leaders, will probably not help Palmer’s case. But it also isn’t enough to ensure his extradition.
A State Department spokesperson told FP that the department doesn’t comment on ongoing extradition requests. But humanitarian concerns and the ability of the individual to receive a fair trial may be considered in a final decision.
According to Vladeck, extradition of alleged criminals is far from rare. What makes Palmer’s case unique “is the public spectacle and public outcry, and not the legal questions.”
In theory, Vladeck said, if Zimbabwe can prove that the extradition request is consistent with the treaty, then the United States will have a legal obligation to send Palmer back to Africa. But the Obama administration could drag its feet on the request until it finds a reasonable legal way to avoid it.
At the heart of the matter is whether, under the formal terms of the extradition treaty, Palmer in fact broke a Zimbabwean law — and if that crime is recognized by the United States.
“If the answer to both those questions is yes,” Vladeck said, “then I think this could end up with him on a plane to Zimbabwe.”
Photo credit: Adam Bettcher/Getty Images
Correction, July 31, 2015: The position of Democratic ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is occupied by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin. A previous version of this article said that Sen. Bob Menendez still held that post.