WASHINGTON — As outrage grows over the killing of Cecil the lion, Zimbabwe has called on the United States to extradite the American dentist who shot the prized big cat this month.
Zimbabwe has started extradition proceedings and hopes the U.S. will cooperate, said Oppah Muchinguri, the African nation's environment minister.
Walter Palmer "had a well-orchestrated agenda which would tarnish the image of Zimbabwe and further strain the relationship between Zimbabwe and the U.S.A.," Muchinguri said.
"This must be condemned in the strongest possible terms by all genuine, animal-loving conservationists who believe in sustainable utilization of natural resources."
Palmer, from Minnesota, allegedly paid $50,000 this month to hunt the lion with a crossbow near Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe.
It turned out to be Cecil -- a major tourist draw at Hwange -- who had been lured out of the park sanctuary with a dead animal on top of a vehicle, according to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
The 13-year-old lion, recognizable by the black streaks in his mane, suffered a slow death, the conservation group said.
Minister: Taking this issue seriously
Amid the uproar over the hunt, Palmer's whereabouts remain unknown.
However, a White House petition requesting that Palmer be extradited to Zimbabwe to face justice may receive a response from the Obama administration.
The petition needed to receive 100,000 signatures by August 27 to get a response. It had more than 170,000 signatures by late Friday morning.
Muchinguri said that there was also much outcry in Zimbabwe and that nearly 500,000 people had called via Facebook for Palmer's extradition.
"We are taking this issue seriously," he said, adding that Palmer should be tried in Zimbabwe for his alleged offenses.
Hundreds of protesters have gathered outside Palmer's dental practice in Bloomington, Minnesota, this week to voice their disgust, CNN affiliate WCCO reported.
In an email obtained by WCCO, Palmer wrote a letter to his patients, saying, "I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion. That was never my intention."
Palmer urged to contact U.S. authorities
Contacted by CNN, the U.S. State Department said that as a matter of policy, it did not comment on specific extradition requests.
"Privacy considerations prevent us from commenting further on the status of the U.S. citizen allegedly involved," it said. "For inquiries regarding any law enforcement aspects of the case, we refer you to the Government of Zimbabwe or the Department of Justice."
The Department of Justice declined to comment on the extradition request but confirmed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was investigating the circumstances of the lion's death.
"That investigation will take us wherever the facts lead. At this point in time, however, multiple efforts to contact Dr. Walter Palmer have been unsuccessful," said Edward Grace, the Fish and Wildlife Service's deputy chief of law enforcement.
"We ask that Dr. Palmer or his representative contact us immediately."
Investigations suggest the killing of Cecil was illegal because the landowner "was not allocated a lion on his hunting quota for 2015," said a statement from the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe.
One positive to come out of Cecil the lion's death is a huge boost in donations for conservation efforts, according to Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, or WildCRU. Its researchers had been tracking Cecil since 2008.
So far, $470,000 has been raised, enough to fund research into lion conservation in Hwange National Park for two years, WildCRU said. Two U.S. philanthropists, Tom Kaplan and his wife, Daphne Recanati Kaplan, have now pledged to match any further donations made, up to a total of $100,000, it added.