Seized wildlife trapped in legal limbo
Animals captured in raids on suspected traffickers and private animal parks are considered evidence in trials that may take years to conclude and state agencies have few options but to keep them caged in overburdened facilities until the cases are resolved
The death of an elephant taken in a raid on a private elephant park in Kanchanaburi province in April last year highlights the strain on state agencies charged with taking custody of seized wildlife. The female elephant and 18 others were taken after park owners failed to provide proper identification documents and turned over to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang province to await legal proceedings.
BEAR FACTS: An Asian black bear inside an open enclosure at the Bang Lamung breeding centre in Chon Buri province is more fortunate than many seized animals which are caged for long periods.
Authorities say the elephant was suffering from an infection and in very poor health when it reached the centre. The owners of the private park contend that it was fine before the raid and its health deteriorated afterward, possibly as a result of the sudden change in environment.
From October 2011 to September 2012, 16,3454 live animals were seized in 704 cases involving the suspected illegal trade in or possession of wildlife. Five tigers and 30 elephants were among the live animals rescued, as well as almost 3,000 snakes, 100 monkeys, 719 water monitors and monitor lizards, 478 pangolins, 660 turtles, 1,400 tree lizards and almost 10,000 birds.
Theerapat Prayoonsit, deputy director-general of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, said that rescued animals are usually placed in one of five wildlife breeding stations. At present, the department cares for 95 tigers, about 400 bears _ both Asiatic black bears and sun bears _ thousands of monkeys and gibbons and a huge number of turtles, snakes and birds.
Mr Theerapat said that for the fiscal year 2012, the department was allocated 20 million baht for food, medicine, health care and dwellings for seized animals. The budget for this year was increased by 10 million baht. However, the budget allocations are based on what is needed for those already at the centres, not taking into account those that will be seized in the coming year.
According to the Conservation Bureau, monthly maintenance costs come to 22,000 baht for each elephant, 8,800 baht for each tiger, 1,200 baht for each bear and 600 baht for other primates such as monkeys and gibbons, while caring for birds costs about 150-200 baht per month.
WORKING GIRL: Phang Prachuab, a 30-year-old female elephant, was seized and placed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang province 10 years ago. After the court case was decided she was trained to perform in the elephant show at the centre.
Most seized elephants are at the Lampang Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, under the Forestry's Department's Forestry Industry Organisation. Altogether the conservation centre is home to 125 elephants, 31 of them seized in raids pending court proceedings. Many of these have been declared national assets by the court and trained to participate in elephant shows at the centre. About 30 old and disabled elephants live at Ban Pang La forested area, also in Lampang province.
In addition to the centres designated by the state to care for seized animals, there are also several wildlife rescue centres operated by local and international foundations that have been approved by the government. The Parks Department has initiated a ''wildlife adoption programme'' to take donations from the public to care for seized wildlife. So far around 3.3 million baht has been donated.
BREEDING CENTRES OVERBURDENED
Animals seized in raids on suspected wildlife traffickers and private parks are considered evidence in criminal proceedings that may take years before they are resolved, either by plea bargain or after a trial. In most cases the confiscated animals eventually are declared national property by the courts and become the responsibility of the parks or fisheries department. In cases in which no one is charged with any wrongdoing, the seized animals still must be kept under state custody for five years before any decision is made on how to deal with them. All seized protected wildlife species are placed under the care of the Parks Department indefinitely.
Mr Theerapat admitted that the large number of animals seized in recent years has put a tremendous burden on the agencies charged with caring for them. He said that in some cases this has led to overcrowding and a shortage of workers and as suppression measures continue the Parks Department will inevitably have to shoulder higher costs to house, feed and provide veterinary care for the animals.
However, Mr Theeratap defended the national system for caring for rescued animals and said it is in the process of being improved, and that when possible animals are allowed to run free instead of being caged. He gave a brief rundown on the operations of the five Parks Department-run breeding centres. All confiscated tigers and reptiles are moved to Khao Prathap Chang and Khao Son breeding centres in Ratchaburi province, said Mr Theerapat. Staff at the Khao Prathap Chang centre have considerable expertise in breeding and caring for tigers, especially Bengal tigers. Due to limited space, however, the cats are separated and placed in individual cages.
The Khao Pratap Chang centre also operates a small zoo where smaller animals such as birds or barking deer are housed. ''We do not charge any fees,'' said a park officer, ''but we do have a donation box.''
At the larger Khao Son breeding centre some 30km away, tigers are raised in an open enclosure. The Khao Son centre was facing financial hardships in caring for seized tigers a year ago, but the provincial authority stepped in to provide short-term support to feed the animals following an incident in which an official was seriously injured by a hungry tiger.
Mr Theerapat said the Krabok Khu breeding centre in Chachoengsao province is responsible for more than 500 monkeys, while the Bang Lamung breeding centre in Chon Buri province is responsible for around 100 bears. Part of the area is operated as a small sanctuary for about 30 Asiatic black bears that live together in an open enclosure with trees and bushes. The centre is raising bees to provide honey for them.
Meanwhile, other black bears and the more numerous sun bears are kept in cages as officials say that building an enclosure big enough for all the bears with an electric fence would be expensive.
The Bang Lamung breeding centre receives financial support from private organisations and individuals and visitors are generally impressed with the appearance and operation of the facility. That is not the case at the Bang Phra breeding centre in Chon Buri, which is responsible for seized birds and turtles. Most visitors to this centre agree that it needs drastic improvement and more private support. The differences in the two facilities point to a tendency for most people to sympathise more with larger animals, especially if they are endangered.
Mr Theerapat said that under Forestry Department regulations, seized wildlife may be kept under the care of the Parks Department or reintroduced into the wild. At the same time, species which are legally allowed for commercial breeding can be sold to private breeders. But in reality, the Parks Department official said, the department has an unwritten policy not to sell them. ''Certain rare species are used for breeding for reintroduction programmes,'' he said.
KEEPING TIDY: A worker cleans an enclosure for Asiatic black bears at Bang Lamung breeding centre.
In light of the increased overcrowding, a few suggestions have been offered to improve living conditions for the confiscated animals and alleviate the burden on the Parks Department at the same time.
One approach proposed is to ''seize in place'', meaning the animals are left where they are found while law enforcement officers monitor the situation and make sure they receive proper care.
One owner of an elephant park argued that his elephants should be allowed to remain under the park's care as long as they were not moved during the legal proceedings to determine his guilt or innocence. He said that that with proper monitoring, the ''evidence'' could not be tampered with or moved, and the elephants would be much more comfortable with their mahouts.
This approach has never been given serious consideration, however. ''That is not acceptable. They have obtained the animals illegally and should not be allowed to continue benefitting from them,'' said Mr Theerapat.
More consideration has been given to the proposal that legitimate wildlife rescue centres operated by local and international foundations be able to care for a specified number of seized animals of certain species, providing they have adequate facilities and manpower. The centres would receive partial support from the government.
Janseang Saengnanok, chairman of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, said that this would help both the government agencies and the animals.
Under a voluntary approach, rescue centres could offer appropriate assistance to care for seized animals during the court proceedings. What's more, law enforcement against the illegal wildlife operators would continue effectively.
Supreme Court Judge Sasiras Praneechit has also proposed methods to manage seized animals during court proceedings. The judge said the Parks Department should be allowed to submit a petition to the court to be able to release animals into the wilderness, and to euthanise severely ill ones. The Parks Department would be required to provide detailed documentation on such animals to use as evidence during court proceedings.
Judge Sasiras also suggested that the Parks Department be allowed to demand restitution from those convicted following raids to pay for the cost of caring for seized animals. Most importantly, she concluded, a high priority should be given to legal proceedings against suspected wildlife traffickers, both to discourage similar crimes and reduce the suffering of animals who may otherwise be forced to spend the rest of their lives in cages.
UP FOR AIR: A seized turtle swims in a pond at the Bang Phra breeding centre in Chon Buri. The centre has the reputation of being poorly managed.
BEHIND BARS: These black bears at the Bang Lamung breeding centre are kept in well-maintained cages.
NO PLACE IN THE SUN: All of the seized sun bears at the Bang Lamung breeding centre are placed in cages.
CROWDED WATERS: Turtles have to make do with a tiny pond at the Bang Phra breeding centre in Chon Buri.
About the author
- Writer: Tunya Sukpanich