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Row erupts over mystery of elephant deaths (Thailand)

Friday 13 January 2012

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.

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.

Bangkok Post

January 13, 2012

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