Tiger King, a documentary about the chaotic life of big cat breeder Joe Exotic, was the Netflix smash hit of 2020. By the time it was broadcast Exotic had been jailed for 22 years for paying a hitman to murder a zookeeper rival. The series shone a wider, unforgiving light on America’s private zoos and the strange characters that own them.
It turns out that there are at least 6,000 big cats in captivity in China too. And in recent weeks, this murky industry has come under scrutiny after animals escaped from their enclosures and two zookeepers were killed.
In the first instance, three young leopards from the Hangzhou Safari Park got loose in mid-April and spent weeks roaming nearby forests. Two were eventually captured but the third was never found and is presumed dead.
The second case came from Bengbu in Anhui where a keeper was attacked by a tiger while cleaning its cage.
The third comes from Nanyang in Henan province where two tigers killed their feeder and escaped into nearby countryside, only to be cornered and shot dead a few hours later.
There are over 1,100 zoos and safari parks in China and they attract millions of visitors every year. In addition to the zoos there are also breeding centres where big cats – mainly lions and tigers – are reared, often for body parts that are used as ingredients in Chinese medicines or traditional luxury gifts, such as ‘lion bone wine’.
The incidents over the last two months have illustrated that in many places, the security measures at these big cat facilities are not up to the mark.
What outraged the public in the Hangzhou case was that the park authorities didn’t even admit to the leopard escape for almost three weeks, despite multiple sightings of the animals by local farmers.
One tea cultivator told the Shanghai Observer that he had a close encounter with one of the leopards. Thinking it was a domestic cat, he approached the animal, only to realise his error as he got closer. He retreated immediately but the leopard began to follow him.
“I took a wooden stick in both hands and we confronted each other,” he explained. “If it had come closer, I would have had to fight it. But at that moment, it turned around and left, looking back at me as it walked away.”
Authorities deployed drones, dogs and over 4,000 people to hunt the escaped leopards. It also deployed 90 chickens as bait to lure them in.
Despite the large numbers of sightings the park had denied claims of an escape right up the point of the capture of the second animal. It later defended its decision, saying that the leopards were not fully grown and thus unlikely to be aggressive.
“We didn’t publish relevant information in time out of concern that it might cause public panic,” park bosses added on WeChat.
For the tiger escape from the Danjiang Peacock Valley park in Nanyang on May 25, the animals got out through an open door after attacking their feeder, who later died of his injuries.
The trackers did not have access to tranquiliser rifles and so the decision was made to shoot the two tigers dead with handguns. They had been on loan to the zoo from a circus in Suzhou which was not licenced to breed or own tigers itself. Similarly, the Peacock Valley park lacked the proper approvals to host tigers as exhibits – its main focus is peacocks, as its name suggests.
And nor is it just big cats on the loose in populated areas. The China Daily reported that 15 elephants were seen blocking roads in a town in Yunnan last week, confirming claims from local citizens that rogue elephants had been wandering the area. Authorities admitted that the animals had left their regular habitat in Xishuangbanna, a national nature reserve. “The herd originally consisted of 17 elephants when it left the reserve, but two of the animals gained access to alcohol in a village and became inebriated, according to local officials,” China Daily noted. It added that the two ‘drunk’ elephants returned home.
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