In what would normally be an unusual intervention for a head of state, Hun Sen wrote on his official Facebook page that he raised the issue with the agriculture minister.
“We agreed to allow the lion’s owner to take back the animal on the condition that he builds a proper enclosure to ensure the safety of people inside the home and the neighbors,” Hun Sen said in the post on Sunday.
He also thanked Cambodians for feeling “pity” for the lion and said that it was a “special case” but did not elaborate in detail. The initial fine of $30,000 will also be returned to the owner, a wealthy Chinese businessman. Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, has on occasion waded into headline-making issues unexpectedly, and residents sometimes appeal directly to him for assistance.
The 18-month-old lion, which was found to be thin, defanged and declawed, was the subject of public controversy in Cambodia after it was spotted in social media posts playing with a dog and being cuddled and bathed by humans as a cub.
Wildlife Alliance, the organization that helped rescue the lion and sent it to a conservation center to much fanfare late last month, declined to comment on Monday. At the time of the original seizure from the home, the organization said that conditions at a residence are “inappropriate for a wild animal.”
Cambodia’s environment ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra also said after the rescue last month that “people have no right to raise rare wildlife as pets.” He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Some social media users criticized the decision to send the lion back to the residence. They included the British ambassador to Cambodia Tina Redshaw, who said she was “disappointed” with the return and that it undermined efforts to protect wildlife, “to say nothing of stress & suffering of inappropriate captivity.”
The lion had been staying at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center following an investigation into the case, which had been ongoing since April. Videos of the animal in what looks like a new enclosure surfaced on social media in recent days but could not be independently verified.
Now he will return to the residence in an upscale Phnom Penh neighborhood. His owner, identified in earlier reports as Zhai Xinjiang, said he deeply cared for the lion, according to government-friendly news outlet the Khmer Times.
He argued in defence of his decision to raise the lion in captivity and said that as a foreigner, he was not aware of any “lion keeping laws” in Cambodia. He also questioned the quality of the animal’s life in a wildlife sanctuary.
“When this lion was under ‘Chinese rule’, his life was like that of a rich man who took good care of him day and night,” he wrote in posts that had apparently originally circulated on popular Chinese messaging app WeChat. “On the contrary, can it be the same for Phnom Tamao?
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