Missing leopard in China feared dead as Siberian tiger returned to the wild after village attack

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A juvenile leopard that fled from a safari park in eastern China last month is feared to have died, while a Siberian tiger that wandered into a town in northeastern China around the same time has returned to the wild.

Rescue workers and drones are still looking for the two-year-old leopard in the hills around suburban Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, after it escaped with two other spotted cats on April 19, according to local authorities. The other two have been recaptured and returned to the park.

In the meantime, a Siberian tiger that showed up in a village in Mishan, Heilongjiang province and attacked a woman was released back into the wild on Tuesday after being kept at a reserve for more than 20 days.

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The last of the leopards that escaped from a safari park in Hangzhou has continued to evade capture, outwitting its hunters and their dogs. Photo: Handout
The last of the leopards that escaped from a safari park in Hangzhou has continued to evade capture, outwitting its hunters and their dogs. Photo: Handout

The fate of the two big cats has gripped China since they made headlines a few weeks ago.

The three-year-old Siberian tiger, who injured a woman and damaged a car on April 23, has become the first animal of its kind in China to be captured and returned to the wild, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration said on Tuesday.

It took local authorities an entire day to catch the 200kg male tiger, who later was moved to a nearby reserve.

“It has normal physical indicators and there is no abnormal behaviour or disease risks, so it is in an appropriate condition to go back to the wild,” the administration said in a statement.

But experts fear the missing leopard in Hangzhou may not be so lucky.

A wild Siberian tiger was caught by forestry officials in northeast China. Photo: Handout
A wild Siberian tiger was caught by forestry officials in northeast China. Photo: Handout

Sun Quanhui, a scientist from the World Animal Protection, told the South China Morning Post that it was very likely that the leopard was sick or even dead after living on its own in the wild for a month.

“In the wild, little leopards need to live with their mothers for about a year to learn how to hunt and other survival skills. But those bred and raised by humans don’t have such experiences and therefore are barely able to survive in the wild for a long period,” he said.

“To keep wildlife in a human condition will create huge pressure on the animal physically, psychologically and behaviourally, and it’s often very hard for captive-bred wildlife to return to the wild, so it isn’t helpful for the preservation of wild animals.

“The best way to protect wildlife is to protect their habitat in the wild and the whole ecology,” he urged.

Other experts expressed similar concerns.

Zhang Jinshuo, a researcher from the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, told China Central Television last week that the sub-adult leopard may have hidden or died, given it grew up in captivity.

A large search involving government agencies and non-government rescue teams is still under way after the three leopards, all aged between two and three, escaped from the Hangzhou Safari Park while staff were cleaning their enclosure.

Rescuers searching for the leopards which escaped from a wild park in Hangzhou, in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. Photo: AFP
Rescuers searching for the leopards which escaped from a wild park in Hangzhou, in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. Photo: AFP

The park concealed the accident for nearly three weeks to prevent any negative impact on visitor numbers during the May Day holiday, local authorities said in a press conference earlier this month.

The park secretly recaptured one of the animals two days later, while the second was captured after the escapes were made public and local residents reported leopard sightings on May 7.

Thousands of people, hundreds of drones, and dozens of dogs have joined the search effort since then, according to the Fuyang district government.

Surveillance cameras have been installed near water sources and chickens have been put into the search area to lure the leopard, but there has been no sign of it so far.

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