WASHINGTON – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is ready to assist Zimbabwe in its investigation of an American dentist's killing of a protected African lion and will conduct its own probe.
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Laury Parramore of the Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday declined to say what the agency might do once it has more information. But she said the agency was "deeply concerned."
Walter Palmer of suburban Minneapolis killed the lion named Cecil on a big-game hunting trip earlier this month. Police have not said whether Palmer will face criminal charges in Zimbabwe.
Palmer said in a statement that he was unaware the lion was protected and relied on his guides to ensure a legal hunt.
In terms of sport hunting abroad, the United States' primary authority is over importation of the carcasses, or trophies. Foreign animals can be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Things to know about U.S. regulations and big game hunting abroad:
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FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE'S ROLE
Parramore said the agency is "currently gathering facts about the issue and will assist Zimbabwe officials in whatever manner requested."
The agency could potentially find a way to block importation of the animal's body, or body parts, if Zimbabwean authorities approved it for export.
"It is up to all of us — not just the people of Africa — to ensure that healthy, wild populations of animals continue to roam the savanna for generations to come," she said in a statement.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said Wednesday that she believes the Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. attorney's office should investigate whether any U.S. laws were violated related to conspiracy, bribery of foreign officials, and illegal hunting.
PROPOSED ENDANGERED SPECIES LISTING
The agency proposed last year to list the African lion as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a move that could limit the importation of African lion carcasses into the United States from some countries. But that rule has not yet been made final.
Listing a foreign species under the act allows the United States to strengthen enforcement and monitoring of imports and international trade, the agency says. A listing can also prohibit certain commercial activity with regard to body parts.
The agency said when it proposed the listing last fall that 70 percent of the African lion population existed in only 10 major strongholds. Threats facing the lions include hunting, loss of habitat and loss of prey, officials said.
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of The Human Society of the United States, said that while much of the vitriol has been aimed at Palmer he hopes the incident adds to pressure on U.S. government officials to finalize the proposed rule.
"It does seem to be a potential breakout moment of public understanding of the ugly underside of the international trophy hunting business," Pacelle said. "There is a much larger problem than Walter Palmer."
ZIMBABWE'S ANIMAL MANAGEMENT
The agency's proposal would allow permits for the importation of sport-hunted lion trophies only if the lions come from countries with a "scientifically sound management plan for African lions."
Long before Cecil's killing, Zimbabwe was heavily criticized for failing to properly manage its wildlife populations. The Fish and Wildlife Service last year announced an indefinite suspension on the import of sport-hunted trophies from elephants hunted in Zimbabwe.
The agency cited shortcomings in Zimbabwe's plans for overseeing its elephant herds and said it was "unable to find that the killing of an elephant whose trophy is intended for import would enhance the survival of the species."
Legal sport hunting, when properly regulated, is considered to be a sound element of wildlife management. Revenues from hunting can be funneled into conservation programs and finance incentives for local communities to guard protected species.
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed to this report.