After Phnom Penh Lion’s Escape, Owner Says He’s Building a Fence

Hei Man, the lion allowed to live in Phnom Penh, sleeps across from his canine companion at the entrance of a Boeng Keng Kang I commune villa on August 16, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Hei Man, the lion allowed to live in Phnom Penh, sleeps across from his canine companion at the entrance of a Boeng Keng Kang I commune villa on August 16, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

A lion that was granted special permission to live in the middle of Phnom Penh escaped for a short time this morning, after which his owner told reporters that he was building a higher fence to prevent future escapes.

Photos of the escaped lion were shared on Twitter, and a restaurant near the lion’s home on St. 306 shared a photo of the lion on the sidewalk while also advertising the restaurant’s steaks. The urban-dwelling lion made its social media debut earlier this year in TikTok videos, leading Forestry Administration officials to seize the lion temporarily in late June. On July 4, however, Prime Ministry Hun Sen granted the lion’s owner, a Chinese national, permission to keep his wild pet as long as the lion was kept from escaping.

Upon seeing a lion from his tuk-tuk parked on St. 306 early in the morning, Sorn Saron, 55, wanted to drive away from the area. But the driver told reporters that the lion was only on the street for less than 10 minutes.

“I saw the lion and it was scary,” Saron said, noting that it was the first time he had seen a big cat in the city. “I was about to run away from the lion, but the lion turned back to his home immediately, so I just stood there watching him.”

When reporters visited the owner’s house in Boeng Keng Kang I commune, the social media-famous lion was visible through the villa’s modern gates. Two security guards first balked at a request to talk to the owner, mentioning the risk of Covid-19, but the owner eventually let reporters into the house. Inside, steel tubes for construction lay along the front hallway and workers carried materials around a small swimming pool, only filled to one-third of its depth.

Hei Man the lion, a name that translates to “Dark Mind,” was sleeping in front of a tapestry of a thick-maned lion. It raised his head as a beige bulldog followed.

Hei Man the lion in his home in Phnom Penh's Boeng Keng Kang I commune on August 16, 2021 (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Hei Man the lion in his home in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang I commune on August 16, 2021 (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

Its owner 一 a Chinese national named as Zhai Xinjiang in local media, though he told reporters his name was Tom 一 invited reporters to sit in his open-air living room for a short interview through a translator.

Hei Man has a cage, he said, but the fence was short so the animal could climb out.

Chinese language news outlet Tnaot, however, has reported that the lion was let loose by a translator who was recently fired over loan issues. The translator who spoke to VOD in Khmer said she was newly hired, and did not know her employer’s name.

Staff at the man’s house were able to recapture the lion about 10 minutes after its escape, he said. He added that they were in the process of building a higher wall so that Hei Man could not get out.

The owner told VOD that the lion did not bite people, and one of the security guards said he is able to pet and play with it. Hei Man continued to lounge in the same position in front of the tapestry. The owner then quickly shuffled reporters out of his living room, but he told them to come visit anytime.

Boeng Keng Kang district governor Prak Malin said officials intend to educate the owner following this escape, warning there would be consequences if the lion roams the city streets again. 

“We already made an agreement with him that if it happens a second time, the lion will be sent back to the wildlife sanctuary,” she said.

Khin Sokha, a security guard managing a condominium one block from the lion’s home, said he saw the lion while he was eating breakfast at 6 a.m., and saw some people looking for it shortly after. He had already seen the lion on social media so he knew it was not vicious, but still Sokha felt a little bit afraid.

“I wonder why they let the lion walk around the street even though the lion doesn’t have claws or fangs,” he said. “Because this is wildlife. Even if the lion lives in the city, it still has a wild soul.”

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