A safari park in eastern China concealed the escape of three leopards - one of which is still at large - for nearly three weeks to prevent negative publicity affecting its visitor numbers during last week's May Day holiday, police said Monday.
The revelation stoked further anger over the park's secretive response to the safety lapse in the city of Hangzhou and video clips showing the escaped cats being brutally hunted down with packs of dogs.
Police said personnel cleaning the leopards' enclosure at the privately run Hangzhou Safari Park on April 19 violated unspecified safety regulations, allowing the animals to escape.
One was recaptured two days later by the park, and a second on Friday by a larger search involving government agencies that was launched after news of the escapes went viral.
A hunt for the third leopard was still under way among hills covered by forest and tea plantations, after fresh paw prints were found on Sunday.
Local residents first began reporting leopard sightings late last week, but park officials only came clean after police began questioning them as part of a subsequent investigation, said Fei Yuezhong, a top official in Hangzhou's police department.
Fei told a press conference in Hangzhou that the company's general manager, who has been identified as Zhang Dequan, issued an internal order to conceal the escapes.
"He (Zhang) believed that if it was truthfully announced or reported to authorities, it would seriously affect May Day visitor numbers, so he decided to conceal it and conduct a private search," Fei said.
Local officials said earlier Monday that five people associated with the park, including Zhang, had been detained. The park has been temporarily closed.
The official search effort launched Friday has so far involved more than 4,000 people, some equipped with night-vision goggles, 450 airborne drones with heat-detection capability, and 85 hunting dogs, Fei said.
A spotter in a powered parachute also was photographed hovering over the search area.
The park initially said over the weekend that it had delayed making a public statement to avoid sowing panic and that the leopards, each just over two years old, were not fully grown.
But public outrage soared further after video emerged of one of the cats being mauled in a forest by a pack of fierce dogs.
Another clip released by a Chinese state-run television outlet appeared to show one of the recaptured leopards in an enclosure with part of a hind foot missing, the wound unbandaged.
"What did these young leopards do wrong to have to suffer the consequences of such serious mismanagement, and to be tracked and mauled by a search team with vicious dogs?" asked one of a string of angry posts accompanying the clip on China's Twitter-like Weibo.
"Is this how we look after our nationally protected animals?"
Leopards, which still roam wild in isolated pockets in China, are protected under Chinese law, with strict bans on hunting or trafficking in leopard-derived products.
Chinese zoos and wildlife parks frequently face criticism over recurring revelations of horrific conditions in captivity or deadly incidents blamed on lax management.
Chinese state media reported in 2017 that a tiger killed a visitor to a wildlife park in the eastern city of Ningbo after the man apparently entered its enclosure, and tigers at a Beijing park killed one woman and injured another the previous year after the pair left their vehicle.