A safari park in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou covered up three of its leopards escaping for over two weeks, fearing that news of the runaway predators would affect visitor numbers during the Labor Day holiday, authorities said.
At a press conference Monday, the Hangzhou municipal government said investigators discovered the three juvenile leopards had escaped from Hangzhou Safari Park on April 19 after two zookeepers “breached safety protocols” while cleaning their enclosure. Zoo executives apparently told staff to keep quiet so the incident wouldn’t “severely affect business” during the holiday season.
Two of the runaway leopards have since been captured: one two days after the escape on April 21, the other on Saturday. The third, however, remains at large.
Like many tourist attractions in China, zoos have suffered economic setbacks because of the pandemic. With no COVID-19 outbreaks anywhere in the country, domestic businesses were hoping the extended Labor Day holiday would bring a sorely needed cash injection from tourists.
Hangzhou Safari Park has been shut since Saturday, and five people including the park’s legal representative and general manager have been detained for endangering public safety, according to a statement from Hangzhou’s Fuyang District, where the facility is located.
News of leopards on the loose was not made public until last week, after locals reported spotting the big cats in nearby residential areas and forests, prompting an official investigation. Until Friday, the animal management manager at Hangzhou Safari Park had repeatedly denied reports that such animals had gone missing.
During Monday’s press conference, an official from Hangzhou’s forestry and water resources bureau said the delay in reporting had hampered efforts to locate and recapture the animals, while also threatening social order and public safety.
The leopard-finding team has mobilized 85 search dogs and over 4,000 personnel including police, rescue teams, and zoo staff. On Monday, the team used live chickens to lure one of the big cats following criticism over their initial decision to use hunting dogs, according to Chinese media reports.
“The juvenile leopard lacks the ability to hunt in the wild, increasing the risk of it harming people. This requires an emergency search and rescue,” said He Xin, a Shanghai-based wildlife animal researcher. “A series of events — like the Siberian tiger entering a village or the leopards escaping — can expose how densely populated areas remain unprepared for close contact with wild animals, and need professional mechanisms to handle such situations.”
Hangzhou Safari Park opened in 2002 and houses over 9,000 animals. Nearly 100,000 tourists visited the park during the five-day Labor Day holiday last week, bringing in an estimated 17 million yuan ($2.6 million) from ticket sales.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: A leopard at Hangzhou Safari Park, Zhejiang province, 2018. Yang Xiaoxuan/Zhejiang Daily)