Park purposely kept 3 leopards' escape a secret

A safari park in Hangzhou concealed the escape of three leopards for nearly three weeks to prevent negative publicity affecting its visitor numbers during May Day holiday.

A safari park in eastern China concealed the escape of three leopards, one of which was still at large, for nearly three weeks to prevent negative publicity affecting its visitor numbers during last week’s May Day holiday, police said on Monday.

The revelation stoked anger over the park’s secretive response to the safety lapse in the city of Hangzhou.

Police said personnel cleaning the leopards’ enclosure at the privately run Hangzhou Safari Park in Fuyang District on April 19 violated safety regulations, allowing the animals to escape.

One was recaptured two days later by the park, and a second on Saturday by a larger search involving government agencies that was launched after news of the escapes went viral.

The first leopard is now healthy and a paw of the second is slightly wounded.

A hunt for the third leopard was still under way among hills covered by forest and tea plantations, after fresh paw prints were found on Sunday.

Villagers spotted a leopard in a residential compound about 2 kilometers from the park around 8pm on Friday. Authorities in Fuyang soon took action and confirmed the leopard was one of three “big cats” that escaped from the park.

But park officials only came clean after police began questioning them as part of a subsequent investigation, said Fei Yuezhong, a top official in Hangzhou’s police department. Fei said that the company’s general manager, who has been identified as Zhang Dequan, issued an internal order to conceal the escapes.

“He (Zhang) believed that if it was truthfully announced or reported to authorities, it would seriously affect May Day visitor numbers, so he decided to conceal it and conduct a private search,” Fei said.

Local officials said earlier Monday that five people associated with the park, including Zhang, had been detained. The park has been temporarily closed.

The official search effort launched on Friday has so far involved more than 4,000 people, some equipped with night-vision goggles, 450 airborne drones with heat-detection capability, and 85 hunting dogs, Fei said. A spotter in a powered parachute also was photographed hovering over the search area.

The park initially said over the weekend that it had delayed making a public statement to avoid sowing panic and that the leopards, each just over 2 years old, were not fully grown.

The delay in announcing the escape sparked criticism that the safari park had put people at risk, especially since the leopards were at large over the five-day Labor Day holiday with hordes of tourists visiting the city of Hangzhou, a popular tourist destination famed for its tea plantations and the scenic West Lake.

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