Chickens have been released in a last-ditch effort to catch a leopard that has been evading capture by Chinese officials since escaping a safari park three weeks ago.
The Hangzhou Safari Park has come under fire for concealing the three leopards’ escape on April 19 for fear of it affecting visitor numbers during a long May Day holiday weekend.
However, the cat was out of the bag when residents of Hangzhou began spotting leopards roaming the hills and local tea plantations. Footage posted online showed a leopard near Jinyuan village, not far from the safari park.
Two of the leopards have been recaptured and returned. The first was recaptured on April 21 by the park, and the second by a government-organized search on May 8 after residents reported the sightings to officials, according to a statement from the Fuyang District government. It is being treated for an injury to its right paw, the state-owned Global Times reports.
The final leopard is still at large, with a hunt involving officials, locals, drones, tracker dogs, powered parachutes, night-vision, and heat-detecting equipment, and now 100 chickens, AFP reports. The cats are captive-bred and so it's thought they have not developed effective hunting skills and may be starving.
"Leopard tracks have been discovered near mountain villages. Police are searching. Everyone please securely close doors and windows and do not go out,” said a mass text message sent to local residents.
The park's attempt to conceal the incident by not officially reporting it or alerting the public to the danger sparked a public outcry. According to the state-backed The Paper, the park initially denied reports of the escape. It has since released a statement (translated) apologizing for not alerting people sooner, saying that it was worried the announcement of the incident would cause panic, that it at first thought as the three big cats were juveniles they were less aggressive, and that it accepted the criticism of the public.
The park is currently closed for investigation and the park's general manager Zhang Dequan plus four others have been taken into custody, according to AFP. It is not known exactly how the animals escaped, though it's thought it was when keepers failed to follow safety instructions after entering their enclosure to clean. The local police said Dequan had ordered the cover-up while the park scrambled to recover the cats.
This is not the first time parks and zoos have come under fire for apparent lax security and endangering humans in China. A visitor was mauled to death at Youngor Zoo in Ningbo, eastern China in 2017 in front of park visitors after he hopped the fence and landed in the tiger enclosure. More recently, a zoo worker was killed by a bear – again in full view of park visitors – last year at Shanghai Wild Animal Park.