Shots in the park threaten nation's endangered species
The Kaeng Krachan National Park chief says if illegal hunting such as that allegedly involving a senior police official is allowed to continue on protected lands it will strike a severe blow to Thailand's biodiversity
It was the shooting of the cat-sized krachong (mouse deer) that really made Kaeng Krachan National Park chief Chaiwat Limlikhitaksorn angry. He and a team of park officials had just arrested a group of illegal hunters who had shot the krachong for sport, along with more than 100 rare giant Asian river frogs, in November of last year inside the park.
CRIME SCENE: A team of police investigators visit the camp site in Kaeng Krachan National Park where a group of men were arrested for illegal hunting.
Mr Chaiwat said it was an important reminder that recreational hunting persists in protected forests, and it adds pressure on the country to wipe it out. This is especially important as Thailand is planning to put forward a proposal to nominate Kaeng Krachan as a World Heritage site.
''If you ask me, some species of animals will be gone if hunting and poaching continues like this,'' said Mr Chaiwat, who spent three days tracking poachers with park officials in the high-profile case.
The park chief said that recreational hunting is far less common in Kaeng Krachan than in other protected areas, but when it does occur, it often involves influential figures with sophisticated weapons who are highly skilled.
Even worse, said Mr Chaiwat, these illegal activities are looked on as an adventure by people who are often affluent and educated, and younger hunters of this kind are already replacing those who ''retire''.
''Wildlife hunting is like car racing. People who have fast cars like to drive fast. People who have high-powered rifles like to come to the forest and kill the animals. It's a thrill.''
Kaeng Krachan, the country's largest national park with 291,470 hectares, contains several ecosystems that contribute to its rich biodiversity in both flora and fauna. According to Parks Department data, at least 720 species live in Kaeng Krachan. Of these, 91 are mammals with statuses ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered. There are also rare freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus siamensis), which are only found in two other places in the world, along with hua daeng (wild red bull) elephants and tigers. Smaller species, including krachong and river frogs, are also protected under the 1992 Wildlife Preservation and Protection Law. Nevertheless, wildlife poaching and hunting continue to threaten the health of the forest.
Most of the time park officials find only animal carcasses, with those responsible long gone.
In one high-profile incident last year the carcasses of two elephants were found. National park statistics show that last year park officials arrested 26 people involved in 62 criminal incidents. Of these, 12 were related to wildlife hunting and poaching. Park officials have also managed to seize vehicles, including four pickup trucks and powerful weapons including an AK-47 and one M1 carbine.
TRACKING BIG GAME
Mr Chaiwat described how last October he and his subordinates learned of the recreational hunting case which allegedly involved a senior police official, Pol Lt Col Thirayuth Ketmangmee, and has since made national headlines.
investigators compare photos from the hunters’ cameras with the actual sites.
According to Mr Chaiwat, park officials at a local pub became suspicious after they overheard other customers telling hunting stories and showing off animal parts. The park officials realised that the activities being bragged about were going on in their forest. They began to ask their sources in the forest, including boat owners, to alert them if the group reappeared. On Nov 8, their sources at the mouth of Mae Pradon stream told them there was a group of people who wanted to rent boats and raft upstream.
Mr Chaiwat then assembled a team of 15 officials and set out to meet the group. The hunting party included a highway official, an official with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and some local poachers who led the way _ nine people in all, including Pol Lt Col Thirayuth.
Mr Chaiwat said that at first he didn't realise there would be so many poachers. His men were divided into three groups. The first group of five park officials was assigned to close off the mouth of the stream, while the second group of four was assigned to close the trails normally used by poachers. The last one, commanded by the park chief, tracked the men. ''I thought that we could catch the guys within one day, but I was wrong,'' said Mr Chaiwat.
After the team spent two days tracking the men with limited provisions, they met some Karen who gave them information. They said they'd seen men carrying guns in the forest and told them where they were camped.
The Karen also complained that these outside hunters were taking animals they rely on as their primary food source in the forest. The encounter with the Karen made the chief confident they were on the right track, but before they reached the place where the group was camped, he and his subordinates stumbled into an area with a dense undergrowth of vines that almost made them turn around and try a different approach.
''But there was no choice but to go through the huge vine forest in front of us,'' said the chief. ''Somehow, we thought of it as karma. I ordered my men to clear the vines and claw through a tunnel we cleared. And finally we got to their camp.''
But to the park team's dismay, there was nobody to arrest. All they found was a doused campfire.
The team was plunged into doubt as to how to proceed. The chief told his men to check for signs the boats had gone back downstream. There were none, so Mr Chaiwat concluded they were still upstream and could be apprehended.
He ordered his men to camp there and wait for the hunters to return.
A little after 10pm on the night of Nov 10, the first few hunters emerged from the dark. The chief showed himself and declared they were under arrest. About 11pm another boat pulled up at the camp and this group was arrested too. Apparently Pol Lt Thirayuth walked up to the camp alone during the arrests.
''It was a bit chaotic as it was dark,'' said Mr Chaiwat.
All the hunters were put in restraints for the night before being taken back to the national park office on the morning of Nov 11.
Mr Chaiwat said the park officials retrieved as much evidence at the scene as they could, including frog carcasses and several rifles.
COMPLICATIONS AND ACCUSATIONS
Mr Chaiwat alleged that before they took the hunters to the park office, Pol Lt Thirayuth approached the chief's subordinate and tried to negotiate a deal. The deal was refused, said Mr Chaiwat, but added that there were ''complications''.
All of the alleged illegal hunters have since been indicted except Pol Lt Thirayuth, with police investigators saying there was not enough evidence to charge him. This has raised a public outcry.
According to Mr Chaiwat, the senior police official was walking behind the last boat and carried nothing in his hands, making it difficult for the park officials to file a complaint against him. Initially, they fined him around 1,000 baht for sneaking into the national park without permission. The park chief insisted that the senior official was detained along with the others, however.
''I think we did the best [we could] at that time,'' said Mr Chaiwat when questioned later and asked if he had helped the senior police officer. ''He had nothing in his hands that night and the others refused to confirm that he was with them. The police officer said he just followed the other men, and he walked up after we found them that night.
''I don't know him personally,'' Mr Chaiwat added.
After filing complaints with Kaeng Krachan district police, Mr Chaiwat said he followed up the case on Nov 12 by ordering his men to check the guns for ownership documentation. Mr Chaiwat told Spectrum this would help confirm whether the senior police officer was with the hunting party.
On Nov 13, the national park filed more evidence with district police in the form of film taken from the hunters' cameras. Some photos shown to the press later seemed to confirm the senior police officer had been on the trip from the first day, Nov 8, and joined in activities including cooking. One photo showed a plate of chopped Asian frog next to a pan in which he was frying eggs. A video from one of the cameras seized from the hunters showed the group fixing a boat with Pol Lt Thirayuth looking on.
But even with this evidence, the senior police official's charges were dropped while the remaining eight alleged poachers face prosecution.
After widespread criticism of the case, the Royal Thai Police joined in the investigation, led by assistant National Police Chief Jaramporn Suramanee, and the district police chief was transferred last week.
Pol Gen Jaramporn, who led a forensic investigation team to review the evidence, said complacency and recklessness on the part of the police investigators were to blame for charges being dropped against Pol Lt Thirayuth. Pol Gen Jaramporn said he was told by investigators that they decided to drop the charges against the senior police officer because he had already been fined by the national park, and the police didn't believe in the evidence forwarded by the national park, especially the photos and the videos. They claimed that there were no dates to confirm the actions recorded on camera and there were no details of the locations. That led the investigators to confirm that it was unlikely Pol Lt Thirayuth had committed any crime.
''The point is, eight others were charged, while the only one who was not charged is a senior police officer,'' said Pol Gen Jaramporn. ''So it is necessary for us to make things clear [to the public].''
Pol Gen Jaramporn said his investigation team had found that times and dates were recorded in the confiscated film.
For instance, photos show that on Nov 8, at 11.15.32am, a group of hunters including Pol Lt Thirayuth embarked on the boats. At 18.07.09 pm, the group started to camp and cook. Some of them apparently ate and drank through the night.
The video showing the senior police official frying eggs was marked as being on Nov 9, at 7.45.26am.
''In my view, the police investigators did not try to look for details from the evidence given to them, and did not try to find facts and information,'' said Pol Gen Jaramporn. ''If they had they would have seen what I did.''
Another key part of any investigation, examining the crime scene, was also neglected, said Pol Gen Jaramporn.
Examination of bullets shot from confiscated guns showed they were identical to the ones that killed the animals.
''It's all basic forensic science, something that seems to have been lacking in this investigation,'' said Pol Gen Jaramporn.
Pol Gen Jaramporn also pointed out that the chain of custody was not established properly and the investigation was not properly integrated. He conceded that park officials could not be expected to have the forensic skills necessary to conduct an initial investigation and collect evidence. However, he said there were problems with the way the case was transferred from the national park officials to police.
He also cited a personal conflict among national park officials and some senior Interior Ministry officials as possibly hindering the investigation.
Pol Gen Jaramporn said there should be better mechanisms in place to help officials from different agencies work together.
''This case may not change things, but hopefully it may help remind all of us to improve the way we work,'' said Pol Gen Jaramporn. ''Justice needs to be delivered in this case as it will help deter others from illegal recreational hunting. And as it involves a senior police officer, it is essential to show that there is no double standard here.''
Mr Chaiwat acknowledged defects in the performance of the parks department officials' gathering of the initial evidence. However, he added, he said the entire system of prosecution in criminal cases concerning the country's natural resources needs an overhaul. He said while concerned officials need to be trained in areas such as evidence gathering, there should be a direct channel through which such cases can be fast-tracked to ensure protection of the environment. That would mean a court directly responsible for such cases, he said.
''If we say preserving the environment is important, we should be more serious about it and government policy must give it priority, with the right commitment and mechanisms,'' said Mr Chaiwat.
PLUGGING THE POACHER
In public at least, agencies such as the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department take the number of arrests for poaching and trading in rare and endangered species as a sign that the situation has improved over recent years.
Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy head of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
However, some officials at the department concede that hunting and poaching in some forests continues unabated. In Kaeng Krachan National Park, for example, poaching ranges from small scale subsistence and game hunting, up to organised gangs who accept orders for specific animals or parts of large animals such as elephants and tigers.
Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, the department's deputy chief, is in charge of wildlife issues. He said the department acknowledges the problems it faces with poaching and has been trying to improve patrols in protected areas.
''Park staff will be retrained and better-equipped, with GPS devices for example. One hundred new national park units have been established to increase surveillance in forests. There are currently about 1,000 units [each of 10 rangers] and the department is aiming to have about 1,500,'' Mr Theerapat said.
Mr Theerapat has also instructed officials to step up their efforts to prevent poaching in Kaeng Krachan and other nearby forests that form the 480,000 hectare complex proposed for listing as a World Heritage Site.
Tim Redford, a programme director at the anti human and wildlife trafficking Freeland Foundation, said poaching appears to be less of a problem in Thailand than in neighbouring countries. ''But that is not to say things are perfect by any means,'' he said.
''The main agency responsible does have rangers on the ground conducting patrols, but these are still not enough,'' Mr Redford said. ''At sites where enforcement is stricter, there appears to be less poaching. Unfortunately many parks are woefully understaffed and these are the sites that are being plundered.
''I think the economic situation in Thailand has helped reduce poaching, as no-one needs to be involved in subsistence poaching,'' said Mr Redford. ''Poaching is more for the sale of meat, which is of much higher value than farmed meat from domestic animals.''
But Mr Redford said game hunting for sport was something that he has not seen elsewhere in the region. It involves wealthy city dwellers showing off their hunting prowess using high powered and expensive weapons with the assistance of locals as guides, he said.
Mr Redford said he believes that the majority of poaching exists to feed the exotic meat market.
''How many times have you seen aharn pa [jungle food] restaurants as you drive around the countryside. It's no coincidence that many of these are near protected areas,'' said Mr Redford. He added that wildlife poaching is made possible partly because current legislation is too weak. ''Fines do not match the scale of the crime or the present economic situation of Thailand.''
MAMMOTH TASK: An aerial view of Kaeng Krachan National Park gives some idea of the area needed to be patrolled.
GRISLY EVIDENCE: Above far left and adjacent, the carcass of a slain mouse deer as found by national park officials. The remains of some of the Asian river frogs killed by hunters, above.
PARTY IN THE WILD: Above, a group including Pol Lt Col Thirayuth Ketmangmee, left, enjoy dinner and drinks in the national park. Below, a tree in the centre of the campsite.
About the author
- Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang