PHNOM PENH -- A lion has been removed from a wildlife rescue sanctuary and returned to a luxurious villa in Phnom Penh after the intervention of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who also waived a $30,000 fine for the animal's Chinese owner.
The 18-month-old giant cat had been living in the backyard of the central city property until last month, when images of the 70-kg lion appeared on social media app TikTok and prompted a raid by authorities.
Working with environmental groups, authorities transferred the lion to the state-owned Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, which is run in partnership with Wildlife Alliance.
But, contrary to advice from wildlife experts, Hun Sen overruled his government's own response and aligned himself with some online users in suggesting that authorities had erred in rescuing the giant cat from its urban residence.
"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 neighbors," the PM posted to his Facebook page on Sunday.
While a remarkable twist in a bizarre case, Hun Sen's personal intervention was also a familiar move by a leader who has embraced social media with gusto in recent years.
In his post about the lion, the Cambodian leader thanked people for their "advice" on the case, a reference to netizens who sided with the owner.
The authoritarian prime minister, in power for three decades, has become an ardent user of Facebook over the past several years as Cambodia's young population has moved online.
With 13 million followers, his is the most followed page in Cambodia.
Like former U.S. President Donald Trump's use of Twitter, Hun Sen uses Facebook as a main channel of communication. Posts range from abrupt policy announcements and party propaganda to folksy family photos to calls for the arrest of opponents.
"It shows the degree to which Hun Sen understands Facebook as a crucial arena of politics," said Sebastian Strangio, author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia."
"It seems like in this case what's happened is a social media groundswell of support for this Chinese guy and his pet lion has created an opportunity for him to burnish his popularity by intervening."
Unlike Trump, however, Cambodia's authoritarian prime minister has full control over his state's various executive and judicial authorities. His commands on Facebook are quickly followed.
"The laws are malleable," Strangio said, "and they bend to fit the prerogatives of the people in charge, most specifically, the person in charge."
"This case shows that, once again, whatever Cambodia's efforts to rein in the endangered wildlife trade --- the passage of laws, regulating the trade, restricting it, imposing penalties on those who engage in it -- ultimately mean nothing if somebody powerful has an interest in carving out exceptions."
The animal, which has reportedly been declawed and defanged, was returned on Monday, with the owner made to sign an agreement that he would be "responsible before law [if] anything goes wrong," local media reported.
The man had been fined $30,000 under Cambodia's Forestry Law, which prohibits raising or breeding endangered wildlife species, but Hun Sen ordered the money returned.
The owner spoke to local newspaper the Khmer Times, which identified him as Zhai Xinjiang. Zhai has denied mistreating the lion, which lives alongside his dogs and is named Hei Man.
He also spoke to a journalist from China's Economic Daily, who posted the interview on Twitter. According to that exchange, Zhai, who said he was a real estate investor, claimed he was given the animal as a cub by a Cambodian friend.
"In the long run, it still needs to return to the wild. We are studying whether to put it in an open place on Bokor Mountain," he told the reporter, referring to a place near Cambodia's coast. "At present, the conditions for that place are not good enough. If there is a better place, please recommend it."
Many criticized the decision to return the lion, including British Ambassador to Cambodia Tina Redshaw, who said it undermined laws aimed at preventing illegal wildlife trafficking.
"To say nothing of stress and suffering of inappropriate captivity," she added.
In a post on the day the animal was confiscated, Wildlife Alliance called conditions at the house inappropriate for the animal, which was fed 6 kg of cooked meat every day.
Following the prime minister's decision, the NGO said it had no comment.