The U.S. government has launched an investigation of Walter Palmer, the American dentist who hunted and killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe. Palmer is currently in hiding after news broke that he was the hunter who killed the beloved lion, after the lion was illegally lured out of a National Park preserve.
The lion’s tragic death is being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see if it was part of a conspiracy to violate U.S. laws against illegal wildlife trading (namely the Lacey Act), a source close to the case told Reuters. The Lacey Act bars trading in wildlife that has been illegally killed, transported or sold.
It has been reported that after Palmer killed Cecil, the cat was skinned and its head severed in order to preserve it as a trophy. The head and hide have been recovered by Zimbabwe officials and are being processed as evidence.
U.S. authorities urged Palmer to immediately contact the agency after being unable to locate him, and said that Palmer had been in touch with them.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe officials announced that the Prosecutor General in that country has already started the extradition process to have Palmer brought from the United States to face charges for the lion’s illegal killing. Palmer is being referred to as a “foreign poacher” by authorities there.
The White House said on Thursday it would review a public petition to extradite Palmer, noting it had exceeded a required 100,000 signatures. However, it will be up to the U.S. Justice Department to respond to an extradition order.
In Zimbabwe, the illegal killing of a lion is punishable by a mandatory fine of $20,000 and up to 10 years in prison.
Palmer has admitted to killing the 13-year-old predator, who was fitted with a GPS collar as part of an Oxford University study. But he said in a statement that he had hired professional guides and believed that all the necessary hunting permits were in order prior to the lion hunt.
One of his professional guides, Theo Bronkhorst, is already facing criminal charges for failing to prevent Palmer from unlawfully killing Cecil. In an interview with the Telegraph, Bronkhorst said he regretted the killing and would not have killed the lion if he had seen the big cat’s GPS collar.
In that same interview Bronkhorst said that the dentist had wanted to kill a wild elephant next, specifically one with tusks weighing 63 pounds each. Bronkhorst told him he could not find an elephant that large, so Palmer returned home without that kill.
Cecil’s death has prompted an outpouring of grief and anger worldwide and has lead to a call for better wildlife conservation efforts to help curb the decline and poaching of animals.