Prime Minister Hun Sen announced Sunday night that an 18-month-old lion cub will be returned to its owner – in violation of Cambodian wildlife protection laws – a week after the animal was taken from a villa in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang district.
Authorities took the lion cub on June 27, and sent it to Phnom Tamao Zoological Park, after videos surfaced on social media application TikTok showing the lion in the central Phnom Penh villa.
Conservation group Wildlife Alliance said the 70-kilogram lion was defanged and had its claws trimmed down, affecting its quality of life.
The confiscation was a ‘joint operation led by the Forestry Administration, with the participation of the Deputy Prosecutor of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the Police and the Military Police and the NGO Wildlife Alliance,’’ according to a Wildlife Alliance press release.
The lion was “illegally smuggled” into the country and it was “illegal” to keep wildlife such as a lion in private possession, local authorities said, according to the Wildlife Alliance.
Hun Sen posted on his Facebook page Sunday night that he had spoken to Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon and decided to return the animal to the Chinese national – because the man had raised the lion and people were “pitying the lion.”
“This evening I discussed with the Minister of Agriculture and agreed to allow the owner to take back the animal, but he has to build a proper enclosure to ensure the safety of people inside home and the neighbors,” Hun Sen posted on Facebook.
He also replied to a comment on his Facebook from Qi Xiao – who is purportedly the Chinese owner of the lion cub.
“[T]he lion is like your family member and it is a special case to return it to you to raise,” Hun Sen commented.
Qi Xiao is a Facebook account created in early June and has seen many posts with hashtags calling for the lion to be returned to its owner and accompanied sympathetic photos showing the man with the lion, as well as a photo showing the Chinese national distributing “ang pao” to a child – red envelopes with money handed out during auspicious times of the year.
Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon told VOA Khmer on Monday that the decision was “a sympathetic” one from the prime minister. He said authorities would ensure the lion was kept safely and not “punished or tortured.”
He said on Facebook that neighbors and other foreigners living near the Boeung Keng Kang villa had filed a complaint to the court about the lion presence in the neighborhood.
Article 49 of the forestry law prohibits any activities involving vulnerable and endangered wildlife species including the possession, stock or maintenance by an individual or family as a private zoo. This article was cited by local authorities and a court prosecutor during the confiscation of the lion cub.
The NGO did not want to comment on the release of the animal to its owner.
“Wildlife Alliance does not have any comments at this time,” said Claire Baker-Munton, who is a communications officer of Wildlife Alliance Cambodia.
Nhek Rattanak Pich, director of Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center confirmed that the animal was returned to its owner on Monday morning, but declined to comment further.
“I don’t have a comment about [return]. [We] just sent it back,” he told VOA Khmer.
San Mala, senior advocacy officer at the Cambodian Youth Network, said the government must base its decision based on existing laws and not on popular sentiment.
“If this case happens to someone who is poor or powerless, they would perhaps face [legal] action,” he said. “The decision should be based on law, not emotions or ideas of individuals.”
British Ambassador Tina Redshaw tweeted on Monday: “Disappointed that lion confiscated from city centre residence is being returned, undermining 🇰🇭 legislation preventing ownership/trade in endangered wildlife, harming global efforts to tackle Illegal Wildlife Trade, to say nothing of stress & suffering of inappropriate captivity.”