Bringing Justice for Cecil the Lion
Yesterday, we learned that American dentist Walter James Palmer paid $50,000 to kill a male lion in Zimbabwe, so he could mount the lion’s head on his wall in Minnesota. Cecil was a major tourist draw at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and had been outfitted with a GPS collar by Oxford University for research several years ago. Palmer hired two guides to organize the hunt and assist him in baiting Cecil, a thirteen-year old male lion, from his refuge in Hwange National Park. The three men allegedly tied a dead carcass to the back of a vehicle to lure Cecil out of the Park where Palmer shot and wounded Cecil with his crossbow.
An avid big game hunter of renowned marksmanship, Palmer should have been able to kill Cecil with a single blow. Instead, the men allowed Cecil to escape, so they could track him for more than 40 hours. Eventually, Palmer decided to end the game by fatally shooting Cecil with a firearm. Palmer posed for photographs over Cecil’s carcass before decapitating and skinning him. His bones and flesh were then left for scavengers in the wilderness.
What Legal Options are There to Bring Justice for Cecil the Lion?
Authorities in Zimbabwe have already arrested two men in connection with the killing of the beloved Cecil the Lion outside Hwange National Park. Theo Bronkhorst, the professional hunter who aided Walter Palmer in killing Cecil, pleaded not guilty to criminal poaching charges (“failure to prevent an unlawful hunt”) and faces the possibility of fifteen years in prison. Honest Ndlovu, the landowner on whose property Palmer killed Cecil, faces the same charges and will appear at a later date.
Yet people everywhere are eager to see the long arm of justice reach Palmer himself, the killer at whose behest the arrested Zimbabwean nationals operated.
What might justice against Palmer look like? Here are several potential avenues:
1. Extradition to Zimbabwe for criminal proceedings
According to a spokesperson, Zimbabwean police are now seeking Palmer in connection with the killing of Cecil. Although Palmer is evidently back in the U.S., a bilateral extradition treaty has existed between the U.S. and Zimbabwe since 2000. Under its terms, anyone charged with an offense illegal in both countries may be extradited. Jens David Ohlin, a Cornell law professor who specializes in international and criminal law, calls this the rule of “dual criminality,” which he characterized as “pretty easily satisfiable” in Palmer’s case. Indeed, as of July 30, more than 135,000 citizens had already signed a petition before the White House asking Secretary of State Kerry and Attorney General Lynch to cooperate with Zimbabwean authorities.
2. Criminal or civil prosecution under the U.S. Lacey Act
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife service could prosecute Palmer for violation of the Lacey Act, which makes it a federal crime to import or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce any wildlife taken in violation of any foreign law. If Palmer knew the killing violated a law, Palmer could theoretically go to prison for five years and pay a $20,000 fine. Perhaps more importantly, a criminal conviction would let U.S. Fish & Wildlife protect other animals, by revoking Palmer’s hunting and import permits. (If Palmer didn’t know, but should have known, that the killing violated a law, Palmer could still pay $10,000 in civil penalties.) Any number of predicate foreign offenses might form the basis of a Lacey Act claim:
- Unlawfully luring Cecil out of Hwange National Park using bait—violating the wildlife protections the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority afforded to animals under its jurisdiction.
- Unlawfully killing Cecil on Ndlovu’s property when no quota for killing lions had been granted him—poaching.
- Unlawfully removing Cecil’s radio collar after killing him—violating the property rights that the Oxford researchers maintained in their equipment.
- Unlawfully failing to provide Cecil a humane death, in which 40 hours passed between Palmer’s shooting Cecil with an arrow and Palmer’s killing Cecil with a bullet—violating animal cruelty standards.
A hunting television host once famously pled guilty to violating the Lacey Act, after shipping home caribou he hunted illegally. As a federal court has pointed out, the Lacey Act, “clearly states that any person who purchases guiding services for the (prospective) illegal taking of fish or wildlife violates the law.” United States v. Romano, 929 F. Supp. 502, 505 (D. Mass. 1996) (citing U.S.C. § 3372(c)(2)(A)).
3. A claim for civil damages under the Alien Tort Statute
The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) is a federal law first adopted in 1789 that gives U.S. federal courts jurisdiction to hear lawsuits filed by non-U.S. citizens for torts—or personal injuries—committed in violation of international law. Here, the Zimbabwean government, researchers at Oxford, or others who can demonstrate injury by virtue of Cecil’s senseless killing might bring a tort claim against Palmer for violating CITES, the international treaty designed to protect wildlife.
4. Criminal or civil prosecution for violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)
RICO, a federal law designed to combat organized crime, allows prosecution and civil penalties for racketeering activity performed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise. Palmer has been convicted for felony poaching in the U.S. before and routinely “purchases” the right to kill big game in Africa, such as rhinos, lions, and leopards. This time, Zimbabwean authorities believe that Bronkhorst and Ndlovu “connived” to kill the lion without the appropriate permits or licenses. Both men face criminal poaching charges in Zimbabwe and could face up to fifteen years in prison. If Palmer induced these men into organizing the hunt as part of an ongoing effort to evade or intentionally violate national and international wildlife laws, then Palmer is guilty of racketeering.
5. Anything else?
Other avenues for justice may likewise exist. Indeed, a Congressperson from Palmer’s home state of Minnesota, Betty McCollum, has called for an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see whether any U.S. laws were violated that might result in justice against Palmer. United States prosecutors and federal officials have several options at their disposal. In the coming days and weeks, ALDF will continue investigating ways citizens can use the legal system to achieve justice for Cecil. In the meantime, ALDF will monitor our government’s response to Palmer’s heinous act and mourn Cecil the Lion’s senseless death.
ALDF Demands Answers
Palmer has publicly acknowledged his role in the savage killing of Cecil the Lion, but he disclaims the Zimbabwe government’s allegation that the men killed Cecil illegally. If Palmer has a defense, then why won’t he share it with the public? The world deserves some answers. For starters:
- How did you, Walter Palmer, select Theo Bronkhorst to serve as your Zimbabwean hunting guide?
- What, if anything, did you do to ensure your guides had secured the proper permits before shooting and killing Cecil?
- Who obtained the dead animal carcass that was used as bait to lure Cecil out of Hwange National Park?
- Who tied the carcass to the vehicle that taunted Cecil as he left the borders of the Park?
- When you steadied your crossbow, did you notice Cecil’s distinctive black mane? Did you wish Cecil dead when you saw how rare he was?
- Why didn’t you kill Cecil immediately? You are a professional marksman with decades of experience killing big animals. How did you miss?
- After you wounded Cecil, why didn’t you immediately euthanize him? Why did you let him go?
- How did you track Cecil? While you were tracking Cecil, did you ever think about how much he was suffering?
- After you found him, how was his condition? Why did you decide to kill him with a firearm as opposed to your crossbow?
- After you had killed Cecil, why did you pose for photographs with his dead carcass?
- When you looked through your crossbow scope, did you notice Cecil’s GPS collar?
- Did you discover Cecil’s GPS collar when you were decapitating him or skinning him?
- What did you do with the GPS collar?
- Where did you go after you killed Cecil? How long did it take you to get there? When did you return to the United States?
- If everything you did was legal, then why are you in hiding now?
Zimbabwe has arrested Palmer’s guides and publicly called for the United States to produce Palmer for questioning about his role in Cecil’s death. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, in a statement late Tuesday called for an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see whether any U.S. laws were violated.
For his part, Walter Palmer has gone into hiding. In his few statements to the press, he’s claimed ignorance of the illegality of the hunt, Cecil’s status as a beloved tourist attraction, and the GPS collar he wore to identify him as protected. Whether Palmer knew Cecil was famous seems entirely irrelevant to the morality of his decision to hunt and kill an animal. Palmer should come out of hiding and own up to his role in Cecil’s tragic death.
What Can You Do to Help?
- Sign a petition to urge the Secretary of State John Kerry and the Attorney General Loretta Lynch to fully cooperate with the Zimbabwe authorities and to extradite Walter Palmer promptly at the Zimbabwe government’s request.
- Sign this petition to urge Delta to end the transport of exotic animal hunting trophies.
If you’re a reporter interested in discussing the legal implications of this case please contact ALDF at firstname.lastname@example.org; (707) 795-2533 x.1021.