The lion, which weighs 70 kilos, was removed from a property in the city’s Boeng Keng Kang district by Forestry Administration officials on 27 June. The lion has been defanged and declawed, according to the nonprofit, Wildlife Alliance, that helped raid the house of its owner.
The South China Morning Post reported that the authorities had been alerted to the lion’s existence in the villa after seeing it appear in a TikTok video in April.
Neth Pheaktra, the country’s environment ministry spokesman, told the media that the lion had been imported from overseas by the owner, a Chinese national Zhai Xinjiang, to be raised in his home.
Since then, Mr Zhai had been making appeals for the lion’s return on his social media and in several interviews.
On Sunday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen responded to Mr Zhai’s pleas in a Facebook post. He wrote that he had a “discussion with the agriculture minister” and has agreed to allow the lion to be returned to its owner in “perfect condition” and if the animal was kept in a “proper cage.”
The PM also ordered authorities to reimburse any penalty paid by Mr Zhai, who was reportedly fined $30,000 (£21,600) for keeping the exotic animal in his villa.
However, the Wildlife Alliance, the group that helped confiscate the lion, had said that the conditions at the owner’s home were “inappropriate for a wild animal”.
Meanwhile, Mr Zhai has thanked the Prime Minister and expressed his gratitude to the people of Cambodia for their “help and support”.
Batting allegations of mistreatment of the lion, Mr Zhai told the Khmer Times that he wasn’t “troubled by the allegations that I used the animal to flaunt my wealth. I am just saddened by accusations that I mistreated the lion. I never removed his teeth or claws as alleged in the media and online. We loved him and he was a member of our family. We have never inflicted any harm on an animal”.
He added that: “My neighbours and friends knew I was feeding him and I was careful to make sure that the public was never in danger.”
He also said that he spent $5,000 a month to rent a special villa just for his pets, many of whom were gifted to his household for safekeeping, Khmer Times reported.
Cambodia’s environment ministry has however clarified that it was “illegal” to keep lions as pets in the country.
Some have criticised the Prime Minister’s move. Tina Redshaw, the UK ambassador to Cambodia tweeted that the return undermined legislation to prevent the ownership and trade of endangered wildlife.
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