Escaped Zoo Leopard Sought by Thousands in China Could Be Dead

A young leopard now missing for three weeks since its escape from a zoo in eastern China could either be dead due to a lack of survival skills, a government expert has said.

Zhang Jinshuo, a deputy director with the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, painted a pessimistic picture of the feline's chances when speaking to China's state-owned broadcaster CCTV on Monday.

The two-year-old leopard was one of three big cats to escape Hangzhou Safari Park on April 19. The privately run zoo kept the blunder a secret for nearly three weeks—even after local residents reported seeing the spotted animals with their own eyes.

"I'm personally quite worried about the state of the leopard," Zhang told CCTV on the 21st day of the animal's disappearance. "All three were juvenile, so it is very young and was bred in full captivity at the zoo. It has no wilderness survival skills."

He added: "Without food in the wild, and given the young leopard's lack of hunting abilities, there is a very big possibility that it is in hiding or even dead. Of course, we all hope the third leopard is safe."

Zhang, who is the deputy curator of the National Zoological Museum of China, said captive-bred leopards are generally tame.

"However, it could be stimulated by hunger or stress in a new environment," Zhang added. "Being surrounded by a large group of people or hunting dogs could elicit an atypical response. Under these circumstances, it's possible it could attack humans."

Chinese Zoo Finds Escaped Leopards
Chinese Zoo Finds Escaped Leopards
This screen grab taken from a CCTV report on May 8, 2021, shows the second of two escaped leopards recaptured and returned to Hangzhou Safari Park in Zhejiang, China. The cat, one of three to escape on April 19, was caught May 8 and found to have an injured hind paw.

Authorities in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, said at a press conference Monday that more than 4,000 personnel were involved in the search for the missing third leopard. Also part of the effort are several dozen drones and hunting dogs, which are combing the mountains and forests around the city.

Hangzhou Deputy Mayor Wang Hong told reporters that investigators had arrested five people in connection with the case. They included the zoo's general manager, Zhang Dequan, who is accused of ordering the initial cover-up.

Chinese Zoo Finds Escaped Leopards
This screengrab taken from a CCTV report on May 8, 2021, shows the first of two escaped leopards recaptured and returned to Hangzhou Safari Park in Zhejiang, China. The cat, one of three to escape on April 19, was caught April 21. CCTV

Before Hangzhou Safari Park had its operations suspended over the weekend, it released a statement apologizing for concealing the truth about its escaped leopards.

The zoo said it did not wish to cause mass panic during the Labor Day holiday, which was observed from May 1 to 5. CCTV criticized the statement, accusing the zoo of wanting to ensure it retained a steady flow of tourists during the public holiday.

Wang, the Hangzhou official, said the first of the escaped leopards was caught two days after the incident, which the zoo blamed on staff error during a handover.

Tea Grower Spots Escaped Zoo Leopard
This image taken by Hangzhou tea grower Zhu Caisong shows one of Hangzhou Safari Park's three escaped leopards on May 8, 2021. Zhu told local media he was fertilizing his plantation when he noticed the big cat, which he at first mistook for a dog, and which was sitting about 5 to 6 meters ahead of him. Weibo

Following further leopard sightings last Thursday and Friday—including by a shocked tea grower standing about 20 feet away from one of the animals—the zoo continued to deny there had been a breach at its big cat enclosure, Wang added.

A public admission finally arrived late Friday night Beijing time, with the second feline captured the following day.

Pawprints possibly linked to the elusive third cat were reported on Sunday. However, no further updates were available at the time of publication.

Search Party Looks For Chinese Zoo Leopard
Members of a research party in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China, search for captive-bred leopards on May 8, 2021, after three of the big cats escaped from a local zoo on April 19. STR/AFP via Getty Images