Lion loose on city streets was ‘part of blackmail plot’ according to its owner

A lion spotted strolling around the streets of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Monday had been "deliberately released" by a disgruntled employee of the animal’s owner, Chinese business tycoon Zhai Xinjiang.

Zhai said his lion Hei Man, whose name roughly translates to "Dark Mind", had been let loose onto the city’s streets by a worker he had sacked for "fraudulent activity".

Zhai told the Khmer Times that the sacked worker had conspired with some of his former colleagues to let the animal out in a bid to blackmail him.

A few hours after the lion’s "escape", the man made several calls to Zhai and sent him a number of messages alleging that he had released the lion because Zhai didn’t feed it properly.

According to Zhai, the man had previously worked as his interpreter and had borrowed $4,000 for a wedding set for August 19.

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However, he later claimed to have lost the money and asked for a loan of a further $4,000 (£2,911), threatening that he wouldn’t repay the first loan unless he could get the extra money.

At this point, says Zhai, he sacked the interpreter.

Dozens of people took photos and videos of the big cat before it was safely recaptured and returned to the owner's home.

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"The current employees said that they forgot to close the gate to the yard as they went to take out the garbage which allowed the lion to run out.

"But this does not explain the fact of the picture being taken immediately after the lion escaping and the blackmail taking place," said Zhai.

He said that he had taken Hei Man in when he was just a two-month-old cub and had been looking after the animal for about a year.

The authorities had confiscated Hei Man from Zhai’s home in Boeng Keng Kang, just outside Phnom Penh, in July after reports emerged that the lion was being allowed to wander freely around the back garden.

He was initially fined over £20,000 but the money has now reportedly been returned.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said he had discussed the issue with the Agriculture Minister, Mr Veng Sakhon, and it was agreed that Hei Man could be returned to Zhai.

"This evening I discussed it with the Minister of Agriculture and agreed to allow the 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 neighbours," Mr Hun Sen said in a post on Facebook.

Zhai agreed to build a more secure enclosure for his lion as part of the deal, but not long after that the lion was released onto the streets.

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