Chinese safari park concealed leopards’ escape for two weeks

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Authorities in eastern China used drones and hunting dogs to search for the last of three leopards that escaped from a safari park, which faced strong public criticism for concealing the breakout for more than two weeks.

The leopards escaped from Hangzhou Safari Park on April 19 during a handover between zookeepers due to a lapse in operating procedures, officials said at a news conference Monday.

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Hangzhou Deputy Mayor Wang Hong said police received calls that leopards were spotted last Thursday and Friday but the safari park denied any had escaped.

The safari park failed to report the escape because it feared that a public announcement would severely reduce the number of visitors to the park over China’s five-day Labor Day holiday, the officials said. The park instead attempted to recover the leopards on its own, and captured one on April 21.

A Sri Lankan zoological garden employee reaches for a leopard in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 16, 2016. (File photo: AP)
A Sri Lankan zoological garden employee reaches for a leopard in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 16, 2016. (File photo: AP)

The safari park eventually reported the missing leopards Friday night, and a second one was captured on Saturday, they said.

A Shanghai Zoo expert who examined the leopards said that the second one required minor surgery for an injury to its paw. Officials said they are both in good health.

The last leopard was spotted by a drone early Sunday, but fled when people attempted to approach it, according to the state-owned Global Times newspaper.

The delay in announcing the escape sparked criticism that the safari park had put people at risk, especially since the animals were at large over the Labor Day holidays, when large numbers of tourists visit Hangzhou. The city is one of China’s most popular tourist destinations, famed for its tea plantations and scenic West Lake.

Five employees, including the general manager and legal representative of the safari park, have been taken into police custody for questioning. The park has been temporarily closed while it reviews safety and management issues.

Officials urged people to remain indoors as much as possible while they attempted to recover the last leopard.

The safari park said on its Weibo social media account Saturday that it was “sincerely sorry” for not announcing the escape sooner. It said it did not make a public announcement because the young leopards were believed to be less aggressive and it wanted to prevent panic.

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