HARARE (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 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 rare black-maned lion well-known to tourists in the Hwange National Park, as an "iconic attraction".
"The illegal killing was deliberate," she said at 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 lion, who was fitted with a GPS collar as part of an Oxford University study.
He said in a statement issued by a publicist early this week that he had hired professional guides and believed the necessary hunting permits were in order.
The Minnesota dentist and trophy hunter has not been seen since his identity was revealed this week by Zimbabwean conservationists.
On Friday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is investigating the killing of the lion, said it had been contacted by a representative for Palmer on Thursday.
In Washington, a Zimbabwean diplomat said the embassy was not aware that extradition proceedings had been initiated by his government. Richard Chibuwe, deputy chief of the mission, said Zimbabwe takes the case very seriously and noted that two Zimbabwean men face court proceedings for helping Palmer.
On Wednesday, a Zimbabwean court charged local professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst with failing to prevent Palmer from unlawfully killing Cecil.
"People really feel strongly that he must also face trial," Chibuwe said of Palmer in a telephone interview.
The U.S. Justice Department said it does not comment on extradition requests. Palmer must be charged in Zimbabwe before he can be extradited.
Muchinguri said Palmer's use of a bow and arrow to kill the lion, who is said to have been lured out of Hwange National Park with bait before being shot, contravened Zimbabwean hunting regulations.
Palmer, a lifelong 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.
Cecil's death has sparked global outrage, with intense social media reaction against Palmer, protests outside his practice, and calls for him to be extradited.
The White House said on Thursday it would review a public petition with more than 100,000 signatures demanding Palmer's extradition.
Under a 1998 treaty between the United States and Zimbabwe, which have not enjoyed cordial relations in the latter part of Mugabe's 36 years in charge, a person can be extradited if he or she is accused of an offence 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.
Lawyer Alec Muchadehama said no American had been extradited to Zimbabwe since the treaty was signed, and that Harare would face legal and political hurdles with Palmer.
First, it has to apply to U.S. courts and satisfy them that Palmer committed an offence 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 revenue generated can be used for 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 to 70 lions every year, Chadziya said.
However, permitted trophy hunting is far from universal in Africa.
The government in neighboring Botswana where it is illegal said the Cecil case illustrates 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.
Despite 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; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Julia Edwards and Ayesha Rascoe in Washington; Editing by Ed Cropley, Giles Elgood, Toni Reinhold