Could Zimbabwe extradite the hunter who shot Cecil?

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A lion’s killing and the resulting public uproar have raised the prospect of extradition and several other issues of international law, not to mention numerous legal issues in the United States and in Zimbabwe, where the lion was tracked for two days and then shot.

A Minnesota dentist named Walter Palmer, an experienced big-game hunter, shot the lion in early July, just outside Hwange National Park, at the country’s western tip. [1] It turns out that the lion was so large and so dominant that wardens had given him a name: “Cecil”.[2]

Palmer has also said that he believed at the time that he was taking the lion legally. That may be true, as far as U.S. law is concerned. [3] The most obvious candidate for a U.S. law Palmer might have violated is the Endangered Species Act, which rarely applies outside the United States.[4] Unless a law provides otherwise, it is generally presumed not to apply outside the nation’s borders.[5] Furthermore, while lions are considered “threatened” or “vulnerable” under the criteria of some conservation organizations, they are not yet recognized as “threatened” by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service so as to support an ESA violation.[6]

Animal-rights and conservation groups have called for Palmer to be prosecuted criminally or civilly under the federal Lacey Act, a 1900 enactment against the purchase of any wildlife taken in violation of any foreign or state law. [7] A violation can be civil, misdemeanor, or felonious depending on whether the defendant knew or should have known he was violating the underlying law in question.[8]

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean officials have impounded the lion’s severed head and raised the possibility of extradition and prosecution for poaching. [9] Several legal scholars told the Washington Post last week that such a request would probably have to be honored under a 1997 treaty between the two countries (PDF), though it would first be subject to challenge and appeals in federal courts, a process that could take years.[10] Like most of the United States's 107 bilateral extradition treaties, it calls for extradition when the charged act constitutes a felony in both countries.[11] U.S. Courts typically enforce such provisions, with the defendant entitled to present relatively little evidence and the prosecuting country required to meet only the “preponderance of evidence” standard.[12] The court typically has some discretion if the alleged acts are criminal in only one of the countries.[13] The Fish and Wildlife Service has begun investigating in connection with a potential extradition request.[14]

Ultimately, the State Department has discretion to refuse extradition if it believes the defendant would not be tried fairly in the foreign court. [15] That would seem to weigh in Palmer’s favor. U.S.-Zimbabwe relations have been somewhat rocky in recent years, in part because of Zimbabwe’s dismal record on human rights.[16] It is difficult to envision a U.S. president and secretary of state delivering a father of two to a country whose courts are believed to be under the influence of de facto dictator Robert Mugabe.[17]

Meanwhile, Palmer’s two Zimbabwean guides have been arraigned on poaching charges. [18] They and Palmer are believed to have lured the lion out of Hwange by tying raw meat to a vehicle.[19] Palmer first shot the lion with a bow and arrow, tracked him for two days, and then killed him with a gun. While permits for hunting outside the park are available for large sums of money, the charges appear to be based on an alleged failure to obtain the proper permits.[20] News accounts have not specifically addressed the legality of luring an animal outside the park to kill it. Palmer himself has not been formally charged, a necessary predicate to extradition.[21]

[1] E.g., Darryl Fears & Elahe Izadi, Cecil the lion’s killer may have trouble avoiding extradition, experts say, Wash. Post, Aug. 2, 2015, at A6,

[2] E.g., Philimon Bulawayo & Mike Saburi, Zimbabwean duo in court over killing of Cecil the lion, Reuters, July 29, 2015,; Michael E. Miller, PETA calls for Walter Palmer to be ‘hanged’ for killing Cecil the lion, Wash. Post, July 30, 2015,

[3] See Foley Bros. v. Filardo , 336 U.S. 281, 285 (1949); see also Jennifer Bjorhus, Americans hunting in foreign countries subject to few U.S. laws, (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune, July 30, 2015,

[4] Envtl. Defense Fund v. Massey , 986 F.2d 528, 530–31 (D.C. Cir. 1993) ; Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife , 504 U.S. 555, 585–86 (1992) (Stevens, J., concurring).

[5] Foley Bros. , 336 U.S. at 285; Envtl. Defense Fund v. Massey , 986 F.2d at 530–31 ; Defenders of Wildlife , 504 U.S. at 585–86; see generally William S. Dodge, Understanding the Presumption Against Extraterritoriality, 16 Berkeley J. Int'l L.. 85 (1998), ContraKirkpatrick & Co. v. Envtl. Tectonics Corp. , 493 U.S. 400, 407–08 (1990) (weakening this presumption in antitrust cases); United States v. Sisal Sales Corp., 274 U.S. 268 (1927).

[6] U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., African Lion (Panthera leo leo), (last accessed Aug. 3, 2015); H. Bauer, et al. Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, (last accessed Aug. 3, 2015).

[7] E.g. Bringing Justice for Cecil the Lion, Animal Legal Defense Fund, (last accessed Aug. 3, 2015); see 16 U.S.C. § 3371 et seq. (2014).

[8] § 3373(a), (d); see also United States v. Romano, 929 F. Supp. 502, 504–06 (D. Mass. 1996), aff’d as to misdemeanor conviction, rev’d as to felony convictions by United States v. Romano, 137 F.3d 677, 678–79 (1st Cir. 1998).

[9] Fears, supra note 1; Bulawayo, supra note ­­­­­2.

[10] Fears, supra note 1; see also 18 U.S.C. § 3184 (2014).

[11] Extradition Treaty Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Zimbabwe, art. 2, July 25, 1997, (PDF); see U.S. State Dep't, Treaties of Extradition in untitled document 5–9 (2013), (PDF).

[12] See, e.g., In re Assarsson , 635 F.2d 1237, 1244–45 (7th Cir. 1980); In re Zhenley Ye Gon, 768 F. Supp. 2d 69, 70–81 (D.D.C. 2011).

[13] Assarsson, 635 F.2d at 1244–45.

[14] Fears, supra note 1.

[15] See, e.g., Peroff v.Hylton, 563 F.2d 1099, 1102 (4th Cir. 1977); Fears, supra note 1.

[16] Statement of Sharon Hudson-Dean, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy, Harare, Zimbabwe,

[17] Int’l Bar Assoc. et al, Zimbabwe: human rights in crisis 18 (2007),; see also Alistair Macdonald & Adrian Croft, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe may be allowed into EU in new role, Reuters, Feb. 3, 2015, []; Anna Dubuis, Walter Palmer: Leopard, rhino and bison among other big game hunted and killed by US dentist, Daily Mail (UK), July 29, 2015,; see generally Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch, [] (last accessed August 2, 2015).

[18] Bulawayo, supra note 1; Animal Legal Defense Fund, supra note 7.

[19] Fears, supra note 1.

[20] Bulawayo, supra note 2.

[21] Fears, supra note 1.

Posted by Christopher R. Bagley (Chris) on Mon. August 3, 2015 3:10 PM
Categories: Africa, Conservation, Environmental, Extradition, International Law, Natural resources, Zimbabwe

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