Residents living near Hangzhou Safari Park, who did not inform the public for a week that the leopards had escaped, spotted the wild cats last week and alerted authorities, according to a statement from the Fuyang District Government.
Surveillance footage released online showed one of the leopards walking near the exclusive Jinyuan Villa area east of the park on Friday.
Search teams were dispatched and two of the leopards were recovered, the local government said in a statement.
Now a massive hunt has been launched for the third, with officials and locals searching on foot and by drone.
It was only before the search was already underway, and seven days since the animals were reportedly first seen, that the park officially notified the public. According to state-sponsored The Paper, park staff had initially denied reports that leopards had escaped.
In a statement Saturday, the zoo said it was “sincerely sorry” for not warning people more quickly, adding: “We were concerned that the announcement of the incident would cause panic.” The statement said administrators felt that leopards were all young people who were low risk but added that it was a mistake and “we sincerely accept the criticism” from the public.
Hangzhou Safari Park is closed while local authorities investigate. The person in charge of the park was taken into police custody.
It remains unclear how the leopards escaped. Concerns about poor conditions and lax safety standards in Chinese zoos have been raised in the past, such as last year when a worker at Shanghai Wildlife Park was killed by a bear in front of customers passing through a safari area.
Hangzhou Safari Park opened in 2002 and houses more than 200 animal species, including pandas and elephants. The leopards were kept in its dangerous predator zone.