The Plot Thickens (elephant poaching in Keang Krachan, run down of press stories)
By John Roberts
15 January 2012 04:03:00
It started as a sad story; on the 4th of January this year the carcass of a wild male elephant was found in Keang Krachan National Park, the elephant had been shot, tusks, penis and other body parts removed.
A stir was caused in the Thai language press and various reasons were put forth for the killing, some folks said it was the revenge killing of a crop raiding elephant and this became the official line, though hints were made that a poaching gang was operating in the area and that this wasn’t an isolated case.
By the time this made the English language press the next day another carcass had been found and the official line became, somewhat bizarrely, that this was a killing by stateless people ordered by foreigners. The story was given that a poaching gang did indeed operate in the area and that elephants were poached to order by restaurants in Phuket that specialised in serving elephant delicacies, again to ‘foreigners’.
Now, the foreigners bit is not as bizarre as it seems, except for one village in Phrae province, I have not heard of a Thai tradition of eating elephant parts but some of our neighbours seem to have a tradition of eating endangered or powerful species.
If you’ve ever seen an elephant’s penis and believe in the ‘you are what you eat’ tradition of medicine then, well, the symbolism is hard to miss.
Whilst the immediate response to blame everything on foreigners doesn’t necessarily ring true, we can swallow it for now.
The next day, the elephant case went quiet, but without anyone in the press connecting the two it was reported that the Chief of Keang Krachan National Park had been charged with the pre-meditated murder of an ex-MP and activist for the rights of just those ‘stateless people’ that live in or on the borders of the park and who had just been accused (en masse) of the elephant killing.
By pure coincidence, at this stage I had a meeting with some folks who had some inside information, they let us know that there were five carcasses now found and that the story was far bigger than being reported, powerful people were involved and that this was far from a one off incident.
As powerful people were involved one might expect the story to die here, however, something happened to bring the story right back into focus.
Thailand’s Royal family are much beloved and are legally above the sort of political wrangling of the sort that might allow powerful people to kill a story and return to quietly poaching elephants to order, also, while powerful people might be powerful in a village or a province, no-one is as powerful as the Royal family.
What happened was: Her Royal Highness Queen Sirikit expressed concern at the killing of elephants. HRH sponsors, among many other things, the Royal re-introduction Foundation and has long been on record as being concerned with the fate of Thailand’s (particularly wild) elephants.
When HRH ‘expresses concern’ it suddenly becomes the concern of many, shall we say, ‘very powerful people’ to find out what happened. Both the Army and the National Police opened an investigation and Deputy Prime Ministers vowed justice for the elephants.
Two days later arrest warrants were issued for five senior National Park employees (including the Deputy Chief of Keang Krachan National Park), not for the killing of the elephants but for the improper disposal of the carcasses, illegal removal of ivory and failure to report their discovery to their superiors in Bangkok. The Chief of the National Park was transferred to an inactive post in order to prevent him from hindering the investigation (odd, to me, that the reported murder charge wasn’t enough to have him moved but there you go).
Without anyone coming forward to say who actually shot the elephants villagers have come forward to accuse park officials of stealing the ivory and trying to dispose of the carcasses, one by burning and one by burying.
At this stage, the Chief Warden decided to air his views to the press, perhaps tell what he knows, of course it has to be taken in context that the people who are accusing his staff of being complicit in poaching are the same ‘stateless people’ who he is, if the Bangkok Post is correct, currently charged with organising the murder of a lead activist for their rights.
On a murder charge and transferred to an inactive post is he a man with nothing to lose telling the truth, taking the others down with him or is he a man with a massive grudge lashing out at his accusers?
If you’d like my twopenneth at this stage (& I think the story will run) the whole thing’s a bloody mess.
While we didn’t know the specifics (the Thai language press are more specific than their English writing colleagues, implicating vets, talking of secret official documents - outlining the ‘hard evidence’ the Police are talking of) some have long suspected that there was wild capture going on in Keang Krachan, I always thought it was more Burma based as I couldn’t believe an operation the size of a wild capture could be kept secret (but if your network’s big enough?) and we have seen reports that poaching for ivory has picked up as the market has increased and as customs at the air and sea ports have become efficient at stopping illegal ivory making it into the country from Africa.
Questions remain in my mind, some of the carcasses appear to have been shot with high powered rifles by experienced hunters, valuable parts removed and carcasses left, some seem to have been ‘sprayed with bullets’ and left with valuable parts intact to be allegedly improperly removed by park department employees - differing modi operandi.
Knowing what little I do of ‘poaching rings’ in other countries (mainly Nepal) they are set up by powerful people in capital cities who grease the wheels and pay powerless people, say ‘stateless people’ living close to the park, to do the actual dirty work, often leaving degrees of separation between themselves and the operation.
In all this accusation and counter-accusation between villagers and park staff I suspect everyone is telling a little of the truth and that there are several people from different groups implicated, all now trying to implicate one another it seems.
I think we need to thank HRH Queen Sirikit for ‘expressing concern’ as it seems that killing elephants has been done, up until now, with some kind of impunity, and that surely must have come to an end. It was her concern that gave the investigation the necessary legs to get to this point.
I’ll add one more thing, I have no idea it how it will turn out, have no better information than any of you (& I’m leaving those I could ask to get on with their jobs), but in all this accusation and counter accusation I tend to trust the man with nothing left to lose so I’ll repeat my (often repeated) request:
Please do not have anything to do with buying an elephant, one more arrow is uncovered pointing to the understanding that doing so will cause another to be taken from the wild.
Row erupts over mystery of elephant deaths
Accusations fly between Kaeng Krachan park chief and local villagers over who killed five jumbos
The brutal slaying of wild elephants in Kaeng Krachan National Park has taken a nasty turn with five officials suspected of being involved.
GRISLY REMAINS: Livestock and wildlife authorities examine part of an elephant carcass found in the Kaeng Krachan National Park before removing it for an autopsy. PHOTO: PIYABUTR PHO-KLANG
At least five elephants were killed last month but so far only two carcasses have been found _ one was a young male and the other was also a male aged about 14 years old. Both had had their tusks cut off.
The younger elephant's body was set on fire while the other was found buried about five kilometres away.
Initially, the case seemed a straightforward one of poaching.
That was until a group of people from Padeng village in tambon Huay Sat Yai in Phetchaburi's Kaeng Krachan district, who found the carcass of the younger elephant last week, told police park officials had ordered its tusks removed and its body burned.
Police took the villagers to a "safe house"after witnesses said they had received death threats from unidentified people.
A senior police officer from Provincial Police Region 7, which is overseeing the investigation into the poaching, said officers were looking into two major aspects of the case _ who killed the elephants and who took the tusks.
The investigators are acting on the belief that a wildlife poaching gang is active in that part of the Thai-Burmese border and that Kaeng Krachan national park officials were involved in the incidents.
The officer said he had solid evidence to prove that at least six Kaeng Krachan National Park officials were involved in the burning of the elephant's corpse.
"It is also clear that the officials took the tusks from one of the dead jumbos before setting it on fire," he alleged.
A 50-year-old Padeng villager, the first person to spot the dead elephant, said he alerted park officials after he found the carcass.
Officials arrived at the scene, examined the carcass and allegedly asked villagers to contact a Karen poacher to help remove the tusks.
"The tusks were intact on the elephant when I first found it. But I was not there when the tusks were removed," the villager said.
"Some villagers told me that one official helped to set up the fire to destroy the carcass. The official later called me to ask me to check that the elephant was completely destroyed."
A 60-year-old Karen villager who removed the tusks from the elephant said they were about 50cm long.
The villager helped remove the tusks because he thought authorities had legitimate reasons for making the request.
Veterinarians and a police forensic team last week conducted an autopsy on the 14-year-old male jumbo.
They scanned the elephant's body and skull for bullets, but found none. The elephant's tusks and trunk and the skin on its forehead were cut off.
"The poachers sprayed bullets into the elephant and I think it died from the wounds," a forensic team member who declined to be named said.
The forensic experts suspect a .308 rifle was used used to shoot the elephant.
Kaeng Krachan National Park chief Chaiwat Limlikit-auksorn is adamant that park officials were not involved in the incidents.
He accused local villagers of making allegations against officials because they are upset with the authorities' crackdown on wildlife poaching in the area.
"Conflicts between park officials and local villagers, especially the ethnic Karen people, have existed for some time because the officials have been keeping a close watch on wildlife poachers," he said.
Mr Chaiwat was yesterday transferred to Bangkok while the investigation was under way.
Wildlife poaching in the forest was linked to other illegal businesses, such as ID cards for Karen migrants, the illicit drug trade and illegal logging, Mr Chaiwat said.
He insisted that ethnic Karens who did not have enough money to pay for a Thai ID card would hunt down an elephant in exchange for a card.
He also claimed poaching had become rampant in the area because of strong demand for baby elephants from elephant shelters in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya provinces.
Ban Padeng village chief Sumit Panyasanti angrily dismissed Mr Chaiwat's accusation, saying the people in the village had nothing to do with any illegal operations.
Park officials were simply making false accusations against the Karen villagers.
Two Padeng villagers did help to remove the tusks, but they did so under the orders of park officials, he said.
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