US agency probes possible legal violation in lion killing: source

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Reuters -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating whether the killing of a beloved lion by an American dentist in Zimbabwe was part of a conspiracy to violate a U.S. law against illegal wildlife trading, a source close to the case told Reuters on Thursday.

The source said the service is investigating the killing under the Lacey Act, a U.S. law that bars trading in wildlife that has been illegally killed, transported or sold.

The investigation is focused on whether Walter Palmer, a dentist in suburban Minneapolis, was involved in a conspiracy to violate the act, the source said.

Separately, the Fish & Wildlife Service said it has been unable to contact Palmer. He has said he killed the lion, known as Cecil, but said he believed the hunt was legal.

Edward Grace, deputy chief of law enforcement for the service, issued a statement urging Palmer to contact the agency immediately.

The death of the famous lion has sparked international outrage. Protesters gathered outside Palmer's dental practice on Wednesday, calling for him to be extradited to Zimbabwe to face charges of taking part in an illegal hunt.

Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe in a post on Twitter on Thursday called the killing tragic and said his agency will "go where facts lead" in its investigation.

A Zimbabwean hunter has been charged in the African country with failing to prevent the unlawful killing of the lion.

Palmer has not been charged in Zimbabwe or the United States at this point.

Click through the slideshow below to see pictures of Cecil, the beloved lion:

33 PHOTOS
Cecil, Zimbabwe Lion killed by Minnesota dentist
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US agency probes possible legal violation in lion killing: source
In this undated photo provided by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Cecil the lion rests in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. Two Zimbabweans arrested for illegally hunting a lion appeared in court Wednesday, July 29, 2015. The head of Zimbabwe’s safari association said the killing was unethical and that it couldn’t even be classified as a hunt, since the lion killed by an American dentist was lured into the kill zone. (Andy Loveridge/Wildlife Conservation Research Unit via AP)
Dentist Walter Palmer, who returned to his practice, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Bloomington, Minn., arrives back to his office following a lunch break. Palmer, after weeks out of the public eye, was the subject of an international uproar after he was identified as the hunter who killed the famous lion Cecil, in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
BLOOMINGTON, MINN - SEPTEMBER 8: Dentist and trophy hunter Dr. Walter Palmer (L- in black short sleeves) walks into his clinic with private security and members of the media on September 8, 2015 in Bloomington, MN. Palmer came to his clinic for the first time in over a month after killing famed lion Cecil in Zimbabwe. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, MINN - SEPTEMBER 8: Dentist and trophy hunter Dr. Walter Palmer (L- in black short sleeves) walks into his clinic with private security and members of the media on September 8, 2015 in Bloomington, MN. Palmer came to his clinic for the first time in over a month after killing famed lion Cecil in Zimbabwe. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, MINN - SEPTEMBER 8: Protester Cathy Pierce (C) and other protesters voice their anger after Dr. Walter Palmer walks into his clinic on September 8, 2015 in Bloomington, MN. Palmer came to his clinic for the first time in over a month after killing famed lion Cecil in Zimbabwe. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
Demonstrators gather outside the dental practice of Walter Palmer, who returned to his practice, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Bloomington, Minn. Palmer, after weeks out of the public eye, was the subject of an international uproar after he was identified as the hunter who killed the famous lion Cecil, in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 05: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protesters hold pictures of Cecil the Lion as they stand in front of the Department of Interior building to protest against the importing of wild game killed as trophies August 5, 2015 in Washington, DC. Peta is calling on the Fish and Wildlife Service to take steps to end cruel trophy hunting by listing lions as a threatened species and banning the importation of their heads, tails, and skins into the U.S. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
In this frame grab taken from a November 2012 video made available by Paula French, a well-known, protected lion known as Cecil strolls around in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean police said Tuesday, July 28, 2015 they are searching for Walter James Palmer, an American who allegedly shot Cecil with a crossbow while on a big game hunt in a killing that has outraged conservationists and others. (Paula French via AP)

Cecil the lion.

(Photo via International Animal Rescue Foundation Africa)

BLOOMINGTON, MN - JULY 29: Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion, in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. According to reports, the 13-year-old lion was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed by Dr. Palmer, who had paid at least $50,000 for the hunt. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, MN - JULY 29: Protesters place signs on the doors of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic to call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. According to reports, the 13-year-old lion was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed by Dr. Palmer, who had paid at least $50,000 for the hunt. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, MN - JULY 29: Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. According to reports, the 13-year-old lion was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed by Dr. Palmer, who had paid at least $50,000 for the hunt. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, MN - JULY 29: Protesters place stuffed animals on the sign of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic to call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. According to reports, the 13-year-old lion was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed by Dr. Palmer, who had paid at least $50,000 for the hunt. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
Stuffed animals and notes lie outside Dr. Walter James Palmer's dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Palmer allegedly paid $50,000 to track and kill Cecil, a protected lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 05: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protesters hold pictures of Cecil the Lion as they stand in front of the Department of Interior building to protest against the importing of wild game killed as trophies August 5, 2015 in Washington, DC. Peta is calling on the Fish and Wildlife Service to take steps to end cruel trophy hunting by listing lions as a threatened species and banning the importation of their heads, tails, and skins into the U.S. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Cecil the lion from Zimbabwe that was killed by an American Dentist is projected on the Empire State Building, in the 'Projecting Change on the Empire State Building' project, made by the Oscar winning director and founder of Oceanic Preservation Society Louis Psihoyos and producer Fisher Stevens in New York on August 1, 2015. PHOTO/ KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe inspects the guard of honour during a ceremony in Harare, Monday Aug. 10, 2015, honouring thousands of fighters who died in a 1970s Bush war against colonialism. Mugabe, in his first public comments about the popular lion named Cecil, says his compatriots failed in their responsibility to protect the lion that was killed by an American in an allegedly illegal hunt. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
Protestors gather outside Dr. Walter James Palmer's dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Palmer reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill Cecil, a black-maned lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Protestors gather outside Dr. Walter James Palmer's dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Palmer reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill Cecil, a black-maned lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
BLOOMINGTON, MN - JULY 29: Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion, in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. According to reports, the 13-year-old lion was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed by Dr. Palmer, who had paid at least $50,000 for the hunt. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, MN - JULY 29: Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion, in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. According to reports, the 13-year-old lion was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed by Dr. Palmer, who had paid at least $50,000 for the hunt. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, MN - JULY 29: Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion, in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. According to reports, the 13-year-old lion was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed by Dr. Palmer, who had paid at least $50,000 for the hunt. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
Protestors gather outside Dr. Walter James Palmer's dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Palmer reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill Cecil, a black-maned lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Mark Balma works on a mural of Cecil the lion outside Dr. Walter James Palmer's dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Authorities allege that Palmer paid $50,000 to track and kill Cecil, a protected lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Stuffed animals and notes collect outside Dr. Walter James Palmer's dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Palmer reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill Cecil, a black-maned lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Theodro Bronkhorst, right, a professional hunter, arrives for his appearance at the magistrates courts in Hwange about 700 kilometres south west of Harare, Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Bronkhorst who was granted $1000 bail has been charged with failure to prevent an unlawful hunt that resulted in the killing of Cecil the lion by Minnesota dentist, Walter James Palmer, in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo)
Farm owner Honest Trymore Ndlovu appears at Hwange magistrates' court to face poaching charges, about 435 miles (700 kilometers) west of the capital Harare, Wednesday, July, 29, 2015. Ndlovu and his co-defendant, professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst , are accused of helping Walter James Palmer hunt the lion. Zimbabwean police said they are looking for Palmer, the American dentist who reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill the animal. (AP Photo)
This photo shows the dental offices of Walter James Palmer in Bloomington, Minn., on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. Palmer, an avid hunter, is accused of illegally killing a well-known and protected lion, named Cecil, during a big game hunt in Zimbabwe. The killing has outraged animal conservationists and others worldwide. (AP Photo/Amy Forliti)
Stuffed animals adorn the doorstep of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Tuesday, July 28, 2015. Palmer, accused of illegally killing a protected lion in Zimbabwe, said Tuesday that he thought everything about his trip was legal and wasn't aware of the animal's status "until the end of the hunt." (Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press via AP)
Women add signs to the door outside Dr. Walter James Palmer's dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Palmer reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill a black-maned lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
A woman writes on a sign outside Dr. Walter James Palmer's dental office in Bloomington, Minn., Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Palmer reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill a black-maned lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
BLOOMINGTON, MN - JULY 29: Rachel Augusta leads the protest of the killing of Cecil the lion in the parking lot of hunter Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. According to reports, the 13-year-old lion was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed by Dr. Palmer, who had paid at least $50,000 for the hunt. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
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