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Chinese national’s TikTok lion spotlights Cambodia’s exotic pet problem

July 4, 2021 GMT

Conservationists have warned of the growing number of exotic animals being kept as pets in Cambodia ’s capital, after a 18-month-old lion was seized from a Chinese national’s Phnom Penh villa last week.

The 70kg male was removed by Forestry Administration officials last Sunday from a property in the city’s Boeng Keng Kang district ” where a square metre of land can cost as much as US$5,500, according to real estate firm CBRE.

Authorities said they were alerted to the lion’s existence after seeing it appear in a TikTok video in April. Animal rescue NGO Wildlife Alliance, which helped with the raid, said its claws and canine teeth had been removed.

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The lion was seized a day after Twitter user Stephen Higgins shared an aerial photograph of it roaming around its owner’s garden, and taken to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre in neighbouring Kandal province.

Forestry Administration Director General Keo Omaliss told This Week In Asia that his agency had never before dealt with lions, which are not native to Cambodia.

“It’s very scary to see a lion running around Phnom Penh,” he said, explaining that the animal was likely brought into the country while still a young cub because “if it’s very small ... you don’t know if it’s a dog or whatever.”

The authorities work with conservation NGOs to crack down on the wildlife trade in Cambodia about once per month, Omaliss said, with birds, turtles and pigs being among the most common seizures ” alongside the occasional sun bear, captured from the nation’s forests. “If we find a rare species, we react very quickly,” he said.

Cambodia does not explicitly ban people from owning non-native species like African lions, according to Thomas Gray, a conservation biologist and consultant in Phnom Penh who has studied the wildlife trade extensively.

“We have to assume it’s relatively uncommon, but I would also be surprised if it’s the only inappropriate pet being kept in Phnom Penh or elsewhere in Cambodia,” he said.

The piecemeal bans that are in place at present only cover specific animals such as African elephants and the trade in their parts, Gray said.

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Cambodia’s Environment Ministry said on Facebook that the Phnom Penh lion was seized under provisions of the Forestry Law that ban the hunting of wildlife or harvesting of forest products without paying tax.

A campaign for Cambodia to ban the trade in any species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List had been on hold since it was hitched to the country’s long-stalled Environment and Natural Resources Code ” which remains in draft form more than five years after it was first drawn up.

Introducing such a policy would help clarify which animals need protection, as according to Gray “it’s quite difficult to get hold of the updated list of protected species under Cambodian law”. “I’m certain that most (Environment Ministry) officials don’t know what are the protected species,” he said.

Lions might grab the headlines, but Gray said the most common “inappropriate” pets in the country were parrots and birds of prey. A cottage industry of peacock, hawk and parrot vendors has popped up on Cambodian Facebook in recent years, while coffee shops featuring caged and tied up birds have also begun to emerge.

On a recent visit to a Phnom Penh address listed on the Parrot Market Facebook page, This Week In Asia discovered four brightly coloured specimens being kept in a parking garage. When asked, the man caring for them said he had sourced the birds from Thailand and was raising them as a hobby. The building’s security guard, however, said parrots had been sold at the address.

Peacocks can also be bought from pet shops in the Cambodian capital, although one called Husky Cambodia Dogs ” which had a caged purebred puppy for sale for US$400 ” said the flamboyant birds were only available on special occasions.

Many of the parrots and other exotic birds for sale in Cambodia are thought to have been snatched from the wild in Indonesia, where conservationists have warned for years that the pet trade is driving a number of rare species to extinction.

But Gray said that black-winged kites, white-rumped falcons and other bird species native to Cambodia had also been spotted for sale in the country in recent years.

“They’re seen in pet shops in Cambodia ...(and at the same time) they’ve disappeared from a number of nest sites where tourists were taken,” he said, noting that opportunistic poachers likely steal the birds’ eggs to sell on.

Authorities face an uphill battle changing public attitudes towards conservation, if reactions on Cambodian social media to the Phnom Penh lion’s capture offer any indication.

Few users expressed shock or upset at the animal’s predicament, instead gushing at the perceived bond between the lion and its owner. A Khmer-language Facebook post by a person called Qi Xiao who claimed to be the owner asking for the animal back was shared more than 26,000 times.

Omaliss, the Forestry Administration official, said that decision was now in the hands of the municipal court, which is reviewing charges against the owner under the forestry law.

“I don’t think there’s a plan to give (the lion) back,” he said. “It’s also up to the prosecutor. If you violate the law, it’s not my call.”

Additional reporting by Yon Sineat

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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