A pet lion that was confiscated by Cambodian authorities last month has been returned to its owner after a surprise intervention by the prime minister.
Police launched an investigation in April after seeing TikTok videos of a lion at a villa in the capital, Phnom Penh.
They discovered that an 18-month-old male lion had been illegally smuggled into the country by a Chinese national.
The 70kg king of the jungle was seized in June and moved to a rescue centre.
Since then the owner, a Chinese man named as Zhai Xinjiang in local media, has made appeals for the return of the lion on social media and in interviews.
On Sunday evening, long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen responded to the owner’s pleas in a Facebook post.
He said he had raised the issue with Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon and agreed to have the lion returned to his owner if the animal was kept in a “proper cage”. He also ordered authorities to reimburse any penalty paid by the owner, who was reportedly fined US$30,000.
The agriculture minister told news outlet VOA Khmer that the decision was “a sympathetic one” from the prime minister.
Wildlife Alliance, an animal rescue group that helped confiscate the lion, said the conditions at the owner’s home were inappropriate for a wild animal.
“The lion’s canine teeth had been removed, along with its claws, which drastically reduces a lion’s quality of life.”
The owner denied the allegations he had mistreated the lion, saying he spent US$5,000 a month to rent a special villa just for his pets, many of whom were gifted to his household for safekeeping.
He said he was not aware it was illegal to keep a pet lion in Cambodia and apologised for causing any alarm to his neighbours.
“I feel very happy. I didn’t expect to get him back,” he told reporters at his villa in an upmarket neighbourhood of the capital.
But some critics strongly disagreed with the decision to return the animal.
The British ambassador to Cambodia said the return of the lion undermined legislation to prevent the ownership and trade of endangered wildlife.
Cambodian authorities have not explained why the initial decision to confiscate the lion was reversed.
One of the world’s longest-serving leaders, Prime Minister Hun Sen has close ties with China, which has poured billions of dollars in development assistance and loans into the country.