For a zoo, letting a leopard escape is worrying. Losing three of them and not warning residents for more than two weeks seems like an entirely different matter.
A safari park near the city of Hangzhou in eastern China faces an onslaught of questions after completing this dubious feat. Late last week, he belatedly admitted that three of his leopards had somehow fled to the nearby hills.
By Monday, seekers had found two of the big cats, and teams with dogs, drones, and darts were looking for the third. They brought 90 live chickens as bait to lure out the missing one.
A search for answers was also under way. The government placed a senior manager of the zoo under criminal investigation and officials promised an investigation. Many Chinese people wondered how Hangzhou Safari Park could lose several wild cats and hold the news back for so long.
The safari park and government were initially vague when the leopards fled, but Hangzhou officials said at a press conference Monday that they fled on April 19 when two caretakers cleaning their enclosure broke “operating rules” – apparently by leaving doors open.
The park’s statement that it would keep the news to itself while secretly searching: He didn’t want to scare the neighbors.
“Given that the escaped young leopards were not very aggressive and feared that disclosure of the matter would cause panic, we did not release the news promptly,” the safari park said in a statement Saturday after the local government made the escape had confirmed and warned residents to be on their guard.
The Chinese internet was full of updates and discussions about the missing leopards. Many were unimpressed with the park’s explanation and had questions about the government’s actions, the frantic search and welfare of the leopards being hunted. Leopards are critically endangered and are found in the wild in the remnants of western China.
“The ‘hide the leopards’ affair has exposed management gaps that require more control and reflection,” Chinese Central Television News said in an online article.
Chen Fang, the owner of a rural recreation hut in the Search area, said in a telephone interview, “The zoo should have notified us earlier.”
“If you say you are afraid of causing public panic, wouldn’t someone panic if they encounter a leopard on the outskirts of town?” One person wrote on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform.
Zoos have become popular tourist destinations in China, and there have been attacks in which visitors to drive-through parks got out of their cars.
Many people online expressed sympathy for the escaped leopards and cited signs that they had been hunted and possibly ill-treated by sniffer dogs.
Residents have described seeing the animals for at least a week before the zoo and local authorities announced they had fled, according to Chinese news reports.
Zhu Caifeng, a tea farmer, said he spotted one in a field in early May. “At first I thought it was some kind of cat, but when I looked closer, the dimensions were wrong,” he told The Shanghai Observer. “It was much bigger than a cat.”
Mr. Zhu was alarmed but remained calm. He used his cell phone to take a picture of the creature looking questioningly at him between the tea plants. But he was too busy working the farm to reconsider encountering an exotic wildcat. After it left, he said, he continued to work in his fields.
Mr. Zhu later made another sighting of a leopard, but friends in the village advised him not to report it to the authorities if it “created unnecessary problems and interfered with work,” he said.
A day later, the thought of a leopard attacking someone made him change his mind and he shared his picture on WeChat, the Chinese social media service, and soon the area was cluttered. The surrounding villages were on their guard.
Mr. Zhu refused to be interviewed, adding that he was overwhelmed by calls from journalists.
“I have been praised online by many for raising the alarm quickly,” he told The Shanghai Observer. “But there are also people who accused me of making a mountain out of a molehill.”
However, even after sightings increased and residents called the police, Hangzhou Safari Park managers – and possibly local authorities – appeared to have hoped to deal with the missing cats during the May 1 holiday in China . The park did not immediately respond to comments on Monday.
Chinese news reports said the park initially denied leopards were missing when asked by journalists. On Saturday, it announced that it would be temporarily closed to resolve unspecified “security issues”.
Later that day, the government of Fuyang District, where the park was located, announced that the three leopards had disappeared and one was still at large, and the park issued its apologies. Since then, search teams have flooded the lush hills on the outskirts of Hangzhou.
So far, there have been no reports of injuries from the leopards, and the safari park and some experts said the shy kittens are unlikely to attack humans.
Still, Chinese news sites offered advice on what to do if you encounter a stray leopard.
“Don’t look them straight in the eye,” said one article. “Whatever you do, don’t panic,” said another. When attacked, your fist should be rammed into the leopard’s neck as a last resort. “This is the only chance to save your life.”
Liu Yi contributed to the research.