image copyrightReutersimage captionThe Chinese owner (pictured here) appealed for the return of the lion

A pet lion that was confiscated by Cambodian authorities last month has been returned to his owner after a surprise intervention by the prime minister.

The 18-month-old male lion was illegally smuggled into the country by a Chinese national, officials said.

They launched an inquiry in April after seeing TikTok videos of the lion at a villa in the capital, Phnom Penh.

The 70kg (11st) lion was seized on 27 June and moved to a rescue centre.

Since then the owner, a Chinese man named as Zhai Xinjiang in local media, has made appeals for the return of the lion on social media and in interviews.

On Sunday evening, long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen responded to the owner's pleas in a Facebook post.

He said he had raised the issue with Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon and agreed to have the lion returned to his owner if the animal was kept in a "proper cage".

He also ordered authorities to reimburse any penalty paid by the owner, who was reportedly was fined $30,000 (£21,600).

image copyrightReutersimage captionThe owner denied mistreating the 18-month-old lion

The apparent owner of the lion thanked the prime minister in a comment on the post and expressed gratitude to the Cambodian people for their help and support.

The agriculture minister told news outlet VOA Khmer that the decision was "a sympathetic" one from the prime minister. He said authorities would ensure the lion was kept safely.

Cambodia's environment ministry had said it was illegal to keep lions as pets in the country. The ministry cited Article 49 of a forestry law, which prohibits any activities involving endangered wildlife species.

Wildlife Alliance, an animal rescue group that helped confiscate the lion, had said the conditions at the owner's home were "inappropriate for a wild animal".

"In addition, the lion's canine teeth had been removed, along with its claws, which drastically reduces a lion's quality of life," the organisation said in a statement last month.

The BBC contacted Wildlife Alliance for comment but did not immediately receive a reply.

image copyrightReutersimage captionThe lion had been confiscated at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center

In an interview with the pro-government Khmer Times newspaper, the owner denied allegations he had mistreated the lion.

He said he spent $5,000 a month to rent a special villa just for his pets, many of whom were gifted to his household for safekeeping.

He said he was not aware it was illegal to keep a pet lion in Cambodia and apologised for causing any alarm to his neighbours.

"I feel very happy, very touched… I didn't expect to get him back," the owner told reporters at his villa in an upmarket neighbourhood of the capital.

But some critics strongly disagreed with the decision to return the animal.

In a tweet the UK ambassador to Cambodia, Tina Redshaw, said the return undermined legislation to prevent the ownership and trade of endangered wildlife.

Disappointed that lion confiscated from city centre residence is being returned, undermining 🇰🇭 legislation preventing ownership/trade in endangered wildlife, harming global efforts to tackle Illegal Wildlife Trade, to say nothing of stress & suffering of inappropriate captivity

— Tina Redshaw 🇬🇧 (@tsredshaw) July 5, 2021
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

The decision should have been based on law, "not emotions", San Mala, senior advocacy officer at the Cambodian Youth Network, told VOA Khmer.

Cambodian authorities have not explained why the initial decision to confiscate the lion was reversed.

One of the world's longest-serving leaders, Prime Minister Hun Sen has close ties with China, which has poured billions of dollars in development assistance and loans into the country.

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