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Chinese zoo criticized after keeping leopards' escape a secret

The park told police it did not report the incident over fears that it would affect the flow of tourists coming into the zoo during public holidays.
Image: Workers take part in a search for a runaway leopard in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province
Workers search for a runaway leopard in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province Sunday. The leopards were spotted roaming through residential areas and tea plantations over the weekend. Chinatopix / AP

They say a leopard can't change its spots. Unfortunately for a safari park in eastern China, it can, however, escape.

Residents demanded answers Monday after a safari park in eastern China failed to inform authorities and residents for weeks that three of its leopards had gotten out of their enclosure.

One of the leopards was still on the loose, said Hangzhou Safari Park in the city of Fuyang. Local media reported that a search team is on its trail after paw prints believed to have been left by the leopard were found Sunday.

The vice mayor of Hangzhou City said police found that the leopards escaped on April 19, several weeks before the first reported sighting. The park also admitted to police that it did not report the incident over worries that it would affect the flow of tourists into the zoo during China's May Day public holidays in the first week of May.

Searchers hunt for one of the escaped leopards Sunday.AFP - Getty Images

Police said that five people in charge of the park, including its general manager, had been detained and that they had launched an investigation.

Residents of nearby neighborhoods said they had spotted the leopards in different locations as early as May 2, according to the Chinese state-backed newspaper Global Times, causing fear and confusion.

Residents contacted authorities after the leopards were spotted roaming residential areas and tea plantations near the park Saturday, the Fuyang District government said in a statement.

Search teams, using drones and hunting dogs, were dispatched to look for the animals. Two of them have been found and captured; park officials said they are in good health.

On Saturday morning, the safari park merely announced that it would be suspending operations, citing safety issues, in a now-deleted post on its official WeChat platform. It made no mention of the escaped leopards.

However, after a surveillance video showing a leopard in the high-end Jinyuan Villa residential area went viral online Friday, the park was forced to finally inform the public about the escaped leopards. It released an apology Saturday evening, saying it was "sincerely sorry" for not having alerted the public sooner, insisting that the leopards were only juveniles and saying it was worried that the announcement would cause panic.

The park has also come under fire after the Chinese state-backed broadcaster CCTV reported seeing the leopards with injuries after they were captured. Local authorities responded by saying the leopards were healthy, but Chinese social media users expressed their disdain online.

On China's Twitter-like Weibo, a user said: "The zoo should be heavily fined. This incident imposed great threat to the safety of people's lives and property."

Another user expressed concern about the treatment of animals at the zoo, saying: "The behavior of the zoo should be thoroughly investigated. Don't just investigate why the animals could escape, but also whether the animals are being properly managed and treated."

Isabel Wang contributed.