Raids on wildlife rescue charities put Thai wildlife agency chief under the spotlight
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2012:
BANGKOK–Making a show of belatedly cracking down on wildlife trafficking, especially commerce in elephants to work at tourist camps, Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation chief Damrong Phidet entered April 2012 “under attack from both the goodies and the baddies,” assessed The Nation sub-editor and Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand board member Jim Pollard.
“The owners of camps along the Burma border and others in Surin, some of them thought to be deeply involved in elephant smuggling, have talked about blocking highways and petitioning to try to get Damrong Phidet removed,” Pollard continued. Also seeking Damrong Phidet’s removal were more than 58,250 petitioners declaring support for Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand founder Edwin Wiek and Elephant Nature Park founder Sangduan Lek Chailert, whose animal charities were the targets of apparent retaliatory raids by wildlife officials in February 2012.
The raids began after Wiek in a January 2012 op-ed column for the Bangkok Post accused Damrong Phidet’s administration of trying to cover up the killing of six wild elephants at the Kaeng Krachan and Kui Buri national parks. Damrong Phidet alleged that the six elephants might have been killed to obtain meat for wealthy visitors to Phuket resorts. “Looking at restaurants catering to rich foreigners visiting Thailand might be looking away from the real problem: the killing of elephants to take elephant babies from the forests to be trained for tourism,” Wiek responded. Sangduan Lek Chailert supported Wiek’s charges.
“There have been claims that up to half of the young tuskers in Thailand have been smuggled in alongside fake surrogate mothers who already have identity papers,” Pollard wrote. “A loophole in the law, which does not require babies to be registered until they are eight years old, has aided this trade.”
Alleging wildlife permit violations, Department of National Parks personnel in eight separate raids seized 103 animals from Wildlife Friends and seized more in four raids on the Elephant Nature Park. But if Damrong Phidet thought holding the animals for ransom would buy silence, he misjudged his critics.
“Wiek has fought intimidation before, in a long-running battle with a large tourist facility in Bangkok, found with dozens of smuggled orangutans, over 50 of whom were eventually flown back to Borneo,” Pollard recalled.
Meanwhile, when the Department of National Parks moved against the Elephant Nature Park, Pollard wrote, “local reporters and TV crews were on hand to challenge parks officials. Why were they harassing one of the country’s most admired wildlife activists, who operates an acclaimed facility which is just a sanctuary–a retirement home where elephants roam free?”
Recounted Sangduan Lek Chailert, “Initially, the DNP officials came to us expecting to find a camp with over 70 illegal elephants and a breeding facility which trafficked to China. Of course they found only 35 elephants, mostly old or injured in some way. Yet even then, on the second and third raids, they still wanted to confiscate our handicapped elephants, and threatened to check our property and disturb our animals living here.”
Pressured to act against more plausible suspects, the Department of National Parks on March 8, 2012 raided a home in Sara Buri where 300 to 400 animals were said to have been kept illegally. “Wildlife trader Thananu-wat ‘Ord Bang Kluay’ Boonpherm, who was arrested on February 4, pointed the authorities to the house, belonging to Si Sa Ketnative Yutthasak Sutthinon, 28,” reported The Nation. “Located on an isolated plot 20 kilometres off the Mitraparp Highway, it was barbed-wired, guarded by dogs, and had 30 security cameras, linked via Internet to be watched from Bangkok,” The Nation said.
Within the next week the Department of National Parks seized two juvenile elephants in a series of raids on three elephant tourism attractions in Phuket. Damrong Phidet took the opportunity to recommend that elephant calves should be registered at three months of age.
But Wiek was unimpressed. Of the Sara Buri raid, Wiek commented in The Nation, “A notorious wildlife trader was busted. The man had no zoo license and could not provide any legal documents for almost 300 animals, including 13 white lions, five tigers, two baby orangutans, two red pandas, 30 marmoset monkeys, camels, and 30 more species of protected wildlife. Eight days after the raid all of the animals are still there.”
Meanwhile, Wiek continued, “Raids on elephant tourist camps around the country made headline news. The DNP visited one elephant camp in Phuket and confiscated two baby elephants. Two camps in Sai Yok, Kanchanaburi were raided and 19 elephants were taken. From raiding just these few camps it was clear that claims that a huge number of captive elephants are without proper paperwork and taken from the wild ae true. Damrong Phidet said it was clear that probably hundreds of elephants were obtained illegally around the country, and vowed to uphold the law to the maximum extent. He stated that under his leadership the DNP would enforce the law without exception, no matter who they are or whom they know.
“So here we are,” Wiek summarized, “more than a month after the first raids against the Elephant Nature Park Foundation and Wildlife Friends. But Damrong Phidet now refuses to further raid and inspect elephant camps country-wide, even though he knows that they house hundreds of illegally obtained elephants. As more insult to injury, he even refuses to confiscate almost 300 illegally imported and obtained wild animals from an illegal wildlife trader who has openly said he imports and exports wildlife for zoos.”
The Department of National Parks countered with a three-page recitation of the alleged permit violations at the Elephant Nature Park Foundation and Wildlife Friends, distributed to Thai consulates around the world for use in responding to letters of protest. Wiek posted both the letter of allegations and his own relatively brief rebuttal to the Wildlife Friends web site.
Because both the Elephant Nature Park and Wildlife Friends have always been open to visitors, Wiek pointed out, and because they have posted the stories of most of the animals in their care to their web sites and Facebook pages, soon after each animal’s arrival, there is no mystery about either charity’s operations, nor about where the animals came from. The same cannot be said of most other holders of captive wildlife in Thailand.