Zimbabwe plans to seek extradition of the American dentist who killed Cecil the lion during a hunting expedition earlier this month, a Cabinet minister said Friday.
Oppah Muchinguri — Zimbabwe's environment, water and climate minister — told a news conference that officials there are "appealing to the responsible authorities for his extradition to Zimbabwe so that he can be held accountable for his illegal action."
A spokesman for Zimbabwe's embassy in Washington told NBC News on Friday that a formal extradition request had yet to be received asking for 55-year-old Water James Palmer to be sent back to the African nation to face justice.
Under a 1998 treaty between the United States and Zimbabwe, a person can be extradited if they are accused of an offense 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 behind bars.
"This is a very serious matter, and some of his accomplices have already appeared in court in Zimbabwe," the embassy spokesman said.
No charges have been announced against Palmer. Two guides whom he reportedly paid $50,000 to help him during his hunting trip face fines and jail time for alleged poaching and not having the proper permits.
Palmer, a resident of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, has admitted killing the 13-year-old lion, a favorite with foreign tourists and the subject of an Oxford University study. He has said he trusted his guides and believed all the necessary hunting permits were in order.
The extradition process in the United States begins when a foreign government makes its request to the U.S. State Department through its embassy in Washington.
If the State Department greenlights the request, it forwards it to the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs, which checks whether the request establishes probable cause that a crime was committed and that an American citizen is the offender.
If the request clears that hurdle, it is sent to the U.S. Attorney's Office responsible for the area where the citizen lives. Then the suspect can be extradited.
It's unclear whether Zimbabwe would slap Palmer with the same poaching charges as his professional guides or consider him an accomplice. Muchinguri said Palmer used a bow and arrow to kill the lion.
Palmer, a life-long big game hunter, managed to return to the U.S. before the authorities were aware of the controversy surrounding Cecil's death.
The killing has sparked social media outrage against Palmer. The White House said on Thursday it would review a public petition of more than 100,000 signatures to have him extradited.
Meanwhile, Oxford University, which was studying Cecil since 2008, said it has received 300,000 pounds (or the equivalent of $470,000) in donations.
TODAY analyst Lisa Bloom said Friday that the likelihood Palmer will be extradited is "pretty good," although he has the right to fight the extradition charges.
"We already know from his statement he's going to say, 'I relied on the local guides. I don't know Zimbabwe law. I trusted them, they let me down,'" Bloom said.
Palmer could also argue that Zimbabwe waited a month before seeking extradition, and only after global condemnation: "Walter Palmer can say, 'I'm being the subject of a witchhunt. This happened July 1. Zimbabwe didn't see fit to extradite me then,'" Bloom added.