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Saturday, December 3, 2016

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE, Zimbabwe (Reuters) — The American dentist who killed Cecil the lion was a “foreign poacher” who paid for an illegal hunt and he should be extradited to Zimbabwe to face justice, environment minister Oppah Muchinguri said on Friday.

In Harare’s first official comments since Cecil’s killing grabbed world headlines this week, Muchinguri said the Prosecutor General had already started the process to have 55-year-old Walter Palmer extradited from the United States.

Muchinguri, a senior member of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, described Cecil — a black-maned lion well-known to foreign tourists in the Hwange National Park — as an “iconic attraction.”

“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.”

Palmer has admitted killing the 13-year-old predator, who was fitted with a GPS collar as part of an Oxford University study, but said in a statement he had hired professional guides and believed all the necessary hunting permits were in order.

He has not been sighted since his identity was revealed this week by Zimbabwean conservationists.

Muchinguri also said Palmer’s use of a bow and arrow to kill the lion, who is said to have been lured out of the national park with bait before being shot, was in contravention of Zimbabwean hunting regulations.

Palmer, a life-long big game hunter, returned to the United States before the authorities were aware of the controversy.

“It was too late to apprehend the foreign poacher because he had already absconded to his country of origin,” Muchinguri said.

Social media in the United States and Europe have exploded in outrage and vitriol against Palmer, and the White House said on Thursday it would review a public petition of more than 100,000 signatures to have him extradited.

Under a 1998 treaty between the two countries — which have not enjoyed cordial relations in the latter stages of Mugabe’s 36 years in charge — a person can be extradited if they are accused of an offense that carries more than a year in prison.

In Zimbabwe, the illegal killing of a lion is punishable by a mandatory fine of $20,000 and up to 10 years in prison.

LEGAL, POLITICAL HURDLES

Lawyer Alec Muchadehama said no American had been extradited to Zimbabwe since the treaty was signed, adding that Harare would face legal and political hurdles with Palmer.

First, it has to apply to U.S. courts and satisfy them Palmer committed an offense and that he would be jailed for more than a year if convicted. Courts in Zimbabwe consider a fine first for lion poachers before imposing a jail term, he said.

“They (U.S. courts) may actually doubt the competence of the judiciary here to try him in an objective manner particularly given these prejudicial pronouncements that the politicians are already making,” said Muchadehama.

As with many African countries, Zimbabwe issues annual hunting permits for big game such as elephant, buffalo and lion, arguing that the revenues generated can be used for wider wildlife conservation.

Last year, the southern African nation which is still recovering from billion-percent hyperinflation a decade ago, earned $45 million from hunting, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority head Edison Chadziya told reporters.

Zimbabwe had an estimated 2,000 lions on private and government-owned reserves and issued hunting quotas of 50-70 lions every year, he added.

However, permitted trophy hunting is far from universal in Africa, and the government in neighboring Botswana — where it is illegal — said the Cecil case showed the risks.

“It is our stern belief that safari hunting of threatened species such as lions has the potential to undermine our regional anti-poaching efforts as it encourages illegal trade which in turn promotes poaching,” it said in a statement.

The shooting is also 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, a source close to the case told Reuters on Thursday.

Despite the global media coverage of Cecil’s killing, the big cat’s untimely demise has gone largely unnoticed in Zimbabwe, where average annual income is just over $1,000 and unemployment is higher than 80 percent.

(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Ed Cropley and Giles Elgood)

Photo: Piper Hoppe, 10, from Minnetonka, Minnesota, holds a sign at the doorway of River Bluff Dental clinic in protest against the killing of a famous lion in Zimbabwe, in Bloomington, Minnesota July 29, 2015. (REUTERS/Eric Miller)