The World Is (Still) Watching

The World Is (Still) Watching

In April of 2012, I wrote a post about the harassment and raids at two highly respected animal sanctuaries in Thailand, Elephant Nature Park (ENP) and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), which were conducted by Thailand’s Department of National Parks (DNP), a governmental agency in charge of the country’s national parks, plants, and wildlife, and led at the time by Director General Mr. Damrong Phidet. The raids resulted in the confiscation of ninety-nine rescued and endangered animals from WFFT and criminal charges against the center’s founders, Edwin Wiek and Jansaeng Sangnanork (Noi).

With less than a month to go before Craig and I embark on our adventure to Thailand, which includes a week volunteering at ENP, I wanted to write a follow-up post to unravel what has proven to be a very convoluted sequence of events, and find out whatever became of the confiscated animals and the criminal charges. I was also curious if either of the sanctuaries had experienced any further harassment from the DNP. On occasion I’ve seen snippets of news about the legal developments for WFFT, and by all accounts both sanctuaries continue to work tirelessly to rescue animals from lives of abuse while campaigning for the rights of animals both domestic and wild, but I wanted to get a clearer understanding of what has happened over the past year-and-a-half, where all the legal issues stand today, and what is in store for the future of the sanctuaries and for the animals they fight to protect. I’d like to give a big thank you to Nicole Vooijs, WFFT’s Marketing Director, and Lek Chailert, founder of ENP and Save Elephant Foundation, for responding to my questions as I tried to fill in the blanks of this complicated story.

Back in May of 2012, three months after the confiscation of their rescued animals, WFFT still had received no official news about where the animals were being held or their condition. There were two centers where they suspected the animals were being housed but they were not allowed entry to confirm this and, according to Wiek, there was even a sign on the entrance gate with his photo stating that he was not to be allowed entry despite video footage where Mr. Damrong Phidet states that they will be allowed to visit the animals. By the end of May, WFFT finally received an official reply that their request to see the animals was denied.

Why the raids ever happened in the first place is still a mystery, although politics, power, and corruption appears to be integral to this chain of events. Wiek has spoken out repeatedly against suspected involvement of government officials in the illegal wildlife trade, and perhaps this was retaliation. In any case, WFFT has all the required documentation that proves the animals in their possession were legally obtained, but that has not brought about the return of their animals. Despite their filing of the proper paperwork over the years, Wiek wrote that the DNP “never responded to our registration of rescued wildlife, they came to see the animals once in a year or two and always said the animals were fine, when we asked for a written confirmation they told us again and again to be relaxed as we were working together and ‘everyone’ knew we were helping out the DNP with our rescue and medical work.”

Around this same time, Mr. Uthai Promnaree, head of the Region 3 DNP office, sent a letter asking WFFT to hand over another fifty-six animals. Wiek wrote that Mr. Uthai said “the enclosures, the medical facilities and the overall wildlife rescue center of the WFFT are of sub-standard and straight-out bad for animals under our care.” Ironically, Wiek noted that “the DNP only a few weeks before stated that they did not have proper rescue centers available for the always increasing amount of animals to be taken in, and the head of Kao Zon and Kao Prathap Chang wildlife breeding centers [where WFFT suspected their animals were being held] went on TV saying he had no money to do maintenance on cages nor did he have money to feed all his animals. He said he had to resort to selling rescued wildlife such as birds to create income to buy food.” It should be noted that Mr. Uthai was due in court to face criminal charges including abuse of power at the time of these actions. I was also able to confirm that the additional fifty-six animals were not handed over and that matter seems to have been dropped at least for the time being.

To further confuse the situation, the raids at WFFT came just after the organization started procedures to obtain a permit from the Thai Livestock Department to operate an animal hospital. WFFT passed the inspection to get the permit on March 22, 2012, and received the permit in the mail on April 30, according to a post on the WFFT website. But on March 23, 2012, an official from the Department of Livestock entered the wildlife hospital without permission, photographed the facility, waited several weeks, and then went to the police to press charges against Noi and the foundation for illegally running an animal hospital. Once again, despite the fact that WFFT was able to produce their permit, they were told the case still had to go to court. Wiek was told that this was on orders of Mr. Damrong Phidet.

So, if you’re following along, there are two separate legal cases pending against WFFT. One is in relation to the charges that WFFT has protected animals illegally obtained on its grounds, and the other is that WFFT is running an illegal animal hospital. The good news is that this past August WFFT was cleared of all charges related to running an illegal wildlife hospital and can get back to the important medical work they do. Ms. Vijoois told me that not only does the hospital take care of the rescued animals at the center, but they also treat, at no charge, domestic animals brought in by villagers from surrounding towns providing another very critical service.

To get back to the main issue of the confiscated animals we need to go back to November of 2012, when a parliamentary committee comprised of government officials, police, and the DNP visited WFFT on invitation from Noi and Edwin to “show the work, facilities and objectives of the foundation first hand to all members of the committee. It was found absolutely necessary to make this visit and meeting at the center happen as the Director-General of the Department of National Parks (DNP) had informed the committee in writing and verbally that WFFT had ‘dirty and small enclosures, no proper medical facilities or vets, inadequate food and encroaching on protected forest land.'” A presentation was made to the committee with testimony by Edwin, Noi, and other supporters. Videos taken during the raids were shown, and a petition was handed over with more than 60,000 signatures from all over the world demanding release of the animals back to WFFT. The result of the visit was very positive and concluded with the committee ordering the DNP to hand over recent pictures and descriptions of the health of all of the confiscated animals, which left WFFT hopeful that they would finally be able to see their animals. Unfortunately, I confirmed with WFFT that, as of this writing, they still have no news of the whereabouts or condition of the animals.

This same parliamentary committee asked WFFT, along with ENP and the Thai Animal Guardian Association, to write a legal amendment to further protect wild animals and the people that try to save them, and to make sure this kind of harassment and abuse of legal power doesn’t happen again. However, Wiek writes in a January 2013 post that wildlife was excluded from this new animal welfare law, which means “some of the world’s most rare and endangered animals will continue to be poached, tortured and exploited, many to the point of total extinction.” Why the decision to exclude wildlife was made is unclear, but Wiek said, “We’re not sure as to his reasons for excluding all wildlife from this very important law. Could it be that the facilities of the wildlife conservation bureau’s fourteen wildlife breeding centre’s nationwide are inadequate? These substandard facilities, where thousands of animals are caged and kept in sometimes appalling conditions. We are sure we and many others are willing to help out with any upgrade! Could it be that the zoo and wildlife ‘entertainment’ community in Thailand holds a lot of political and financial power? There have been numerous cases of illegally obtained and kept animals being found in these zoos and wildlife camps and yet not one charge has been levied against these offenders! Make your own deductions from this, maybe money does speak louder than justice?”

In the meantime, WFFT continues to work alongside ENP and other NGOs to convince the committee to include wildlife in the animal welfare law. Lek told me they will never give up, no matter how difficult it is to make the government interested in animal welfare, and that they will continue to work and speak out for animals until the country has laws to protect them. What seems clear in the meantime is that despite the seemingly positive strides made by the parliamentary committee’s visit, in the end it’s politics as usual.

While all of this is related, it’s a digression from the legal issues regarding the initial raids, which is why it’s so difficult to follow this complex story. On June 27, sixteen months after the raids, a judgment was rendered and Wiek issued a press release which states, “The court finds all three defendants, Jansaeng Sangnanork, the Foundation and Edwin Wiek, guilty of possession of protected wildlife found on the 13 of February 2012. This court has taken the statements of two government officials (of the DNP) and believes these statements must be correct. The court did not check on paper and other evidence of the defendant, as it believes that Thai government officials always work straightforward, with full integrity. The court rules it has not considered any evidence that was handed over after the 13th of February 2012, no paperwork, video evidence or any form of other argument. Court sentences all three defendants to a fine of 30,000 Baht each and a jail sentence of one year. As the court feels the three defendants are of great service to society with their work of saving animals and have no criminal record at all the sentence will be reduced to 30,000 Baht each and a suspended jail-term of one year under probation time of two years. The foundation can continue its work of rescuing wildlife but must make sure laws are obeyed and should discus with relevant authorities.”

Just reading the above statement brings up so many questions, and if you read the full press release there is even more confusion about the legitimacy of the legal proceedings and if this truly is the final verdict. Why did the court refuse to review evidence? Why do they assume the DNP is full of integrity when multiple officials have gone to court for corruption and abuse of power charges? Wiek has written that he feels the guilty verdict was a way for government officials to save face and by giving a lenient punishment so the foundation can continue their work, which the government knows is beneficial despite their efforts to thwart it. From the court’s point of view it’s a win-win situation. Although the sentence was light, WFFT doesn’t believe they deserve the guilty verdict and will continue to fight it in an appeal, so the court case continues.

During this period of time ENP has not experienced any further harassment by the government or the DNP since the initial raids. I asked Lek if she thought that the retirement of Director General Damrong Phidet in September of 2012 had any effect on that. She said the new DG, Mr. Manophat Huamuangkaew, is working on damage control and has invited several NGOs to meet in order to solicit their opinion which has never happened before. This seems positive on the surface, as does the DNP’s recent efforts to put all elephants, including privately owned, domesticated elephants, under a wildlife protection law because, as the DNP’s deputy director said, “We believe the improved law will lead to better control and care for elephants. It should also reduce problem related to the illegal trade of elephants.”

How this law relates, if at all, to the one that Wiek, Lek, and others were asked to write is not clear. While protection for domestic elephants is critical in a country where there are more elephants in captivity than in the wild – in which most suffer physical and mental abuse from trekking day after day with tourists on their backs, and performing in circuses and street begging – how beneficial it will be is not certain. The new law will allow the DNP to confiscate elephants they feel are not getting adequate care or have been illegally obtained from the wild. However, as the DNP official quoted above stated, they do not have adequate money and facilities to care for the animals they already have in their possession. Lek told me about one domesticated elephant that was seized from its owner under this law because the DNP thought it was illegally obtained from the wild. The elephant’s owner was able to produce the proper paperwork and the case was dismissed, but when he went to retrieve the elephant it couldn’t walk, was very sick, and it’s now uncertain whether it will live. I don’t know what this elephant’s life was like before it was taken from her owner, but it seems obvious that the DNP’s care was not adequate.

Shortly after I heard this story from Lek there was an article in The Nation describing how elephant owners are protesting this law, in which this same sick elephant was referenced. It’s a situation where it’s hard to know whose side to be on. Certainly wild and captive elephants need protection, but not if their protectors will do more harm than good.

In summary, where we are to date is that the charges against WFFT in regards to running an illegal animal hospital have been dropped, but they were found guilty of being in possession of illegal wildlife despite having all the required paperwork and were given a light sentence that is currently being appealed. WFFT still have no information as to the whereabouts or condition of its ninety-nine confiscated animals. ENP has faced no further harassment since the initial raids. Both organizations are working on animal welfare laws for the protection of both captive and wild animals; and while a new law was passed that is supposed to protect captive elephants, any such elephants will be under the care of the DNP, which has a negligent history in that regard. Both WFFT and ENP remain steadfastly dedicated to the rescue and preservation of all species of animals.

If it sounds like this story isn’t over yet, it’s because it’s not. There will be further updates as events progress. In the meantime, the world is still watching.

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