Walter Palmer: Lion Killer A Fugitive As Zimbabwe Begins Extradition — What Are Prisons Like There? [UPDATED]

Jonathan Vankin

Walter Palmer, the 55-year-old Minnesota dentist and "trophy" hunter who admitted killing the beloved African lion known as "Cecil," is now a fugitive, after the Zimbabwe government in Harare made its first official statement on the lion-killing, saying Friday morning that it wants Palmer extradited to face charges in the country where he claimed his latest "trophy."

Describing Palmer, who has one poaching conviction on his record already — for killing a black bear in Wisconsin in 2006, then lying to authorities about where he killed the animal — as a "foreign poacher," Zimbabwe Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri condemned the killing of Cecil as both "deliberate" and "illegal."

"We are appealing to the responsible authorities for his extradition to Zimbabwe so that he can be held accountable for his illegal actions," said Muchinguri. "It was too late to apprehend the foreign poacher because he had already absconded to his country of origin."

Palmer, in his only public statement since he was revealed as the hunter who shot the 13-year-old lion with a bow and arrow, claimed that he was misled by local guides into believing that the hunt that killed Cecil was legal, and that he had no idea that the lion he shot was "a local favorite."

But the dentist now appears to have gone underground and has not responded to attempts by United States authorities to contact him.

UPDATE August 1, 2015: Palmer has "voluntarily" reached out to the U.S. authorities searching for him, NBC News reported on Saturday. What Palmer had to say in his communication with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, or how he made the contact, was not revealed.

The Fish and Wildlife officials, stymied in their efforts to track Palmer down, had posted a message on Twitter asking him to make contact. The dentist has not been charged with any United States crime in connection with his killing of Cecil the Lion.

Also not revealed, the location where Palmer is hiding. He has not been seen at his home or dental practice in Minnesota. But it was reported on Friday that the wealthy dentist recently purchased a vacation estate in Marco Island Florida.

This image is reportedly the view from the $1.1 million home on Scott Drive.

On Thursday, the online consumer review site Yelp responded to protesters who were angry that the site removed negative comments about Palmer from his River Bluff Dental page on Yelp.

Yelpers: we hear you. #CecilTheLion

— Yelp (@Yelp) July 30, 2015

A petition had protested what it called the site's "autocratic censorship of this this historic, unprecedented outpouring of participation in public debate."

"At this point in time, multiple efforts to contact Dr. Walter Palmer have been unsuccessful. We ask that Dr. Palmer or his representative contact us immediately," said Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is investigating the circumstances of Palmer's hunt, that took place reportedly during the first week in January.

If convicted in Zimbabwe, Palmer could face a $20,000 fine and possibly even 10 years of prison time — an extremely unappealing prospect in a country one journalist who spent time imprisoned there described as "one of the poorest, most repressive places on earth" — conditions that are likely unamenable to the middle-aged, wealthy father of two who lives in an Eden Prarie, Minnesota, mansion and donated $5,000 to the 2012 presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney.

"The floor was filthy. The odor of human waste infected the air. More bothersome were the bugs," wrote reporter Barry Bearak, who was jailed in 2008 for "the crime of journalism" in Zimbabwe.

"Sleep escaped me. The concrete was too hard, my body too bony. I had never so craved a pad and blanket. The insects were most annoying at night. In my wakefulness, I'd pull my sleeves over my hands but then the stretched fabric exposed my midriff."

U.S. authorities continue to wait for Walter Palmer to emerge from hiding.

[Images: Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, Facebook]