Five Malaysian soldiers who killed a protected bird while on a jungle patrol and then posed for a photograph with the carcass have been suspended and could face criminal charges, an official said Tuesday.
The case has renewed allegations by wildlife activists that some army personnel and other authorities might be involved in poaching and illegal hunting of threatened animals in Malaysia's rain forests.
A photo of four soldiers grinning while holding up a large hornbill sparked outrage among conservationists earlier this year when it surfaced on Facebook.
The four men and their colleague who took the photo claim they killed the bird to end its suffering after finding it shot and lying on the ground last year, a Defense Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements.
The Great Pied Hornbill, known for its massive bill and distinctive black, yellow and white colors, is not endangered but it remains protected under Malaysian law. Activists say its numbers in Southeast Asia have been decreasing because of loss of habitat and illegal hunting.
The soldiers had been patrolling a forest reserve where poaching is known to occur near Malaysia's northern border with Thailand. Malaysia's jungles are home to numerous protected animals including tigers, rhinos and elephants.
The five have been suspended from duty amid an investigation, the ministry official said. He added they might also face criminal charges for killing the hornbill, but he could not elaborate.
Wildlife officials investigating the case could not immediately be reached. Other activists say the soldiers should have tried to save the hornbill by sending it for medical attention.
Elizabeth John, a Malaysian official with Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network, said the case highlighted concerns about the possible involvement of the army, police and other authorities in poaching and wildlife smuggling.
"It's very, very disappointing to see that trust (in the authorities) abused over and over again," she said, adding that Traffic has received unofficial complaints from villagers about security personnel being involved in hunting.