PHNOM PENH (AFP) - A defanged and declawed lion trafficked to an upscale neighbourhood of the Cambodian capital was on Monday (July 5) returned to its owner following the unlikely intervention of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The 18-month-old cub, weighing 70kg, had been imported from overseas, officials said. It was raised by its owner, a Chinese national, who named it Hima.
Authorities learned of the unlikely pet after seeing TikTok videos of Hima playing in a Phnom Penh villa. The lion was confiscated on June 27 and brought to a wildlife rescue centre.
Wildlife Alliance, an animal rescue NGO that aided in the raid last week, had said that private residence was "inappropriate" for a wild animal, and that the owner had removed the lion's canine teeth and claws.
A couple of days later, a video of the lion's owner Mr Qi Xiao visiting Hima in the centre went viral.
In the video, Hima kept nudging Mr Qi as he fed it meat, a seemingly affectionate behaviour that sparked calls on social media for them to be reunited.
By Sunday evening, Mr Hun Sen announced on his official Facebook page that Mr Qi could have his lion back on the condition that he "build it a proper cage to ensure the safety of the people in the house and neighbours".
He also ordered authorities to reimburse any fine paid by the owner.
Mr Qi thanked the premier in a comment on the post, and also expressed gratitude to "Cambodian people for helping and supporting our Hima".
"Lastly, I wish that Cambodia and China stay strong friends forever," he wrote.
The lion was transported on Monday afternoon to Mr Qi's villa.
"I feel very happy, very touched... I didn't expect to get him back," Mr Qi told reporters as the lion and his dog wandered around his background.
But not everyone was pleased by this outcome.
"(The return is) undermining legislation preventing ownership and trade in endangered wildlife, harming global efforts to tackle Illegal Wildlife Trade, to say nothing of stress & suffering of inappropriate captivity," UK ambassador to Cambodia, Ms Tina Redshaw, said in a tweet.
Cambodian authorities declined to comment on how much the owner was fined or what prompted the legal change of heart.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-serving leaders, is a staunch ally of Beijing, and Cambodia receives billions of dollars in soft loans and investment from China.