During the May Day holiday, several reports appeared on China's social media of leopards being sighted roaming in the neighborhoods of Fuyang District, Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province.
When local police asked two major zoos in the city if there had been escapes of enclosed animals, both denied any escapes. It was not until late night on May 7 that the Hangzhou Safari Park, under great pressure from outside, acknowledged that three young leopards had escaped from the safari park.
Actually, the three leopards escaped on April 19, which means that the management team of the zoo had been covering up the incident for as long as 18 days. According to news releases, two of the three leopards have been found and returned, but the last one is still at large.
In a public apology on May 8, the safari park said it feared that promptly informing the public might trigger panic and affect the business of the zoo during the coming five-day May Day holiday. It also hinted that the 3-to-4-year-old leopards were still young and not so powerful. Nevertheless, according to reports from rescue teams, when searching for the second leopard, seven sniffer dogs were bitten by the animal before it was shot by tranquilizer rifles and subdued.
Triggering panic or causing damage – which one is more serious? In my point of view, covering up an incident which can bring secondary disaster is even more intolerable. The incident not only will lead to punishment of those who should be held accountable, but also tarnishes the image of Hangzhou as a famous sightseeing city in China. It is reported that five people, including the general manager of the safari park, have been detained in connection with the incident. The zoo has been ordered to close, check all enclosed animals and eradicate potential safety loopholes. Full refunds would also be made to visitors.
The area to where the leopards were traced is very close to scenic West Lake and to one of the main plantations of the famous West Lake Longjing, one of the most welcomed tea types in China. Residents and visitors are advised not to go to nearby mountainous areas and stay away from trees and bushes that are the frequent hiding places for leopards.
A massive search and rescue campaign is also resource-consuming; more than 4,000 personnel have been mobilized by the Hangzhou authority to patrol adjacent streets, neighborhoods, mountains and villages over an area of more than 100 square kilometers. Moreover, a total of 270 professional hunters, animal experts and emergency workers are joining the search with the help of helicopters, drones, infrared detectors and other high-tech facilities.
It is really lucky that so far no human casualties have been reported in the incident. While paying special attention to public safety, I also worry about the safety of the last leopard still at large. Because all leopards in the Hangzhou safari park have been fed with fresh chicken nuggets since infancy, can it survive in the wild for such a long time?
The escape of the leopards has taught us several lessons. It has not only enraged the public who have called for holding park managers accountable, but also alerted the whole country to strengthen the security management of ferocious animals enclosed in around 1,300 safari parks nationwide. Moreover, it has also prompted us to reflect on humans' relationship with animals and on our treatment of enclosed animals.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)