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Cecil the Lion Killing Brings Calls for Extradition and Global Reckoning on Endangered Species

Zimbabwe is asking the US to extradite the Minnesota dentist who stalked, shot, and beheaded a rare lion

by VICE News
Jul 31 2015, 7:23pm

The killing of Cecil the Lion in a remote stretch of Zimbabwe has prompted an international reckoning over how countries protect endangered species and combat illegal hunting.

On Thursday, the UN General Assembly adopted its first ever resolution on endangered species and poaching. The vote was non-binding, but expressed serious concern over the steady rise of illegal animal hunting and urged member states to consider it a "serious crime."

Meanwhile, on Friday, Zimbabwe's environment minister demanded that the US extradite 55-year-old Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who allegedly paid $55,000 to help lure Cecil from a national park, stalk him, and eventually cut off his head.

"I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite," Palmer said in a statement. The dentist has a history of illegal big-game hunting, and has yet to appear in public since the most recent allegations surfaced.

Related: Where Is Walter Palmer? Lion-Killing Dentist Disappears As Protesters Rally Outside His Home

The killing was not immediately cause for concern in Zimbabwe. At first, the country seemed nonplussed by the Cecil controversy. On Thursday, information minister Prisca Mupfumira responded, "What lion?" when asked a question about Cecil's death.

By Friday, however, the government had changed its tone. "Unfortunately it was too late to apprehend the foreign poacher as he had already absconded to his country of origin," Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe's environment, water, and climate minister, said at a news conference on Friday. "We are appealing to the responsible authorities for his extradition to Zimbabwe so that he be made accountable." In the US, a petition to the White House had collected 172,000 signatures in support of extradition as of Friday morning.

While Thursday's UN resolution - co-sponsored by Germany and Gabon- was adopted in the wake of international outrage over the lion's killing, the resolution itself singled out rhino and elephant poaching in Africa as especially egregious. It warned that it could "threaten those species with local extinction and, in some cases, with global extinction."

Poaching has had a particularly deleterious effect on Africa's elephant population. There are now an estimated 470,000 African elephants living in the wild, compared with 550,000 in 2006, according to the NGO Elephants Without Borders. Demand for ivory in China - which consumes up to 70 percent of the world's supply - is responsible for the death of 30,000 African elephants a year.

"This is a historical day," said Steven Broad, the executive director of the UK-based anti-poaching group TRAFFIC. "The world has sent an unequivocal and collective signal at the highest level that ending wildlife crime is a top priority."

"This is a historic step made by the international community," Gabonese Foreign Minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet said in a statement.

Though the resolution was not linked directly to Cecil's killing, Gabon and Germany said the incident highlights the need for more international efforts to combat poaching. "Like most people in the world, we are outraged at what happened to this poor lion," Germany's UN envoy. Gabon's envoy also called the incident a matter of "deep concern."

Still, trophy hunting remains largely a legal practice, and if Walter Palmer had killed another lion, outside of a national park, his actions would have been perfectly legal.

According to data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, trophy-hunting tourists legally kill at least 600 lions annually. Jane Smart, the global director of IUCN's Biodiversity Conservation Group, told the Washington Post that this number probably understates the problem, and that 2 percent of the lion population is depleted each year due to legal hunting.

Much of that hunting is undertaken by Americans, who are responsible for about 64 percent of all African lions killed for sport, according to a 2011 report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Related: The Illicit Wildlife and Resource Trade Is Financing Militias and Terrorists