BANGKOK (AP) — The head of one of Thailand's largest construction companies has been arrested for hunting protected animals in a wildlife sanctuary and was found with the skin of a black panther and other animals, officials announced Tuesday.
Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said Premchai Karnasuta was arrested Sunday with three others after park officials were informed they had set up camp in a restricted wildlife sanctuary on Thailand's western border. The Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary is listed as a World Heritage Site by the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO because of its diversity of fauna and flora.
Premchai, 63, is president of Italian-Thai Development and one of the country's most prominent businessmen.
The department said in a statement that national park rangers found guns and the carcasses of a black panther, a Kalij pheasant and a barking deer in their possession. The rangers filed charges of hunting protected animals and violating gun laws.
Police Col. Wuttipong Yenjit said Premchai, who is being detained in the western province of Kanchanaburi, denied the charges.
"Thailand's national parks face a problem of poachers whom rangers regularly keep out by patrolling the protected areas," said Sasin Chalermlarp of the Sueb Nakhasathien Foundation, a conservation group.
"In today's case, however, the group claimed to be tourists, using their connections to access the sanctuary to hunt for pleasure. This is not only unusual, it is shocking. But what is extraordinary as well is that low-ranking rangers dare to arrest such a powerful man in Thailand. This is rare and also commendable."
It is not unusual for the rich and well-connected in Thailand to escape justice.
"This is Thailand's natural heritage, and no one, whoever they are, has the right to plunder it and consider themselves above the law," said a joint statement by the conservation groups Freeland, Green World Foundation, LoveWildlife, Traffic, WildAid and World Wildlife Foundation. They estimated that there are only 2,500 Indochinese leopards — the formal name for the type of black panther whose skin was found — left in Southeast Asia.
The groups cited a wildlife official as saying that the detained men were liable to up to five years' imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 baht ($1,500) if convicted.
The park where Premchai and the other were arrested holds a special place in Thai political history.
The crash in 1973 of an army helicopter returning from the park revealed that cronies of the military clique then ruling the country had been illegally hunting there. Public revulsion at the affair and official attempts to cover it up helped fuel a pro-democracy movement whose protests later that year helped topple the dictators.