Written on Monday 24th June
Today is Edwin Wiek and the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s court hearing. This stems from last year’s DNP (Department of National Parks) raids on the Centre. In January 2012 Edwin published an article in The National newspaper here in Thailand regarding poachers and the harm they had recently done in two national parks. Kaeng Krachan and Kuiburi National Parks were home to at least 500 wild elephants, and at the time of the article there had been six elephants found dead in the last three weeks. Edwin described this as only the tip of the iceberg. He explained that young elephants are taken while poachers kill as many of the herd as they need to in order to capture babies. Often, due to fear of being caught by officials or hurt by raging witness elephants, poachers will leave behind things that they would otherwise take if they had more time, such as ivory or sexual organs (for traditional medicine and the bush meat trade). This shows that baby elephants are worth much more to poachers than parts of dead elephants (in fact a two- to four-year-old female elephant might fetch up to 1 million Baht). In his article, Edwin described how poachers are able to get away with smuggling baby elephants. After going through Phajaan, a baby elephant will be paired with a legally-owned older female and passed off as her offspring. This way the baby elephant can be smuggled across borders to be used in different tourist trades. Edwin called for a stop to this and suggested a fairly easy solution: DNA test supposed mother-baby pairs to prove whether they are true relatives or not, and punish those using wild-caught elephants. You can find the full article here.
There was a good response after the article was published, and everyone at WFFT thought there was the potential for positive change when an official announced they would be looking into DNA testing for elephant camps and the like. For someone like me, the article seemed a great bold move. Unfortunately in a country full or corruption, this feeling wasn’t mutual. As a result of Edwin’s media article, the DNP spurred themselves into investigation – not on the poachers or elephant tourism establishments, but on Edwin himself and other rescue centres.
The Department of National Parks started their ‘investigation’ with WFFT and one other rescue sanctuary, using almost 200 armed employees and temporarily-hired locals to raid the entire Centre for days on end while Edwin, WFFT staff and volunteers alike looked on helplessly. The DNP told Edwin he was holding animals at the Centre illegally – they asked to see paperwork for all the rescued animals, of which there were about 450. Edwin did have the paperwork, but piling it together was an issue; the DNP gave Edwin about two-and-a-half hours to provide every single animal’s records, meaning he had roughly 30 seconds per individual paper. Unfortunately, it was an impossible ask. WFFT could not present all the required papers within the designated time limit. The DNP had also accused WFFT of keeping animals in ‘tortuous’ conditions, of the Centre being a phony foundation taking profits from tourists, of ‘disturbing the livelihood of locals’, and of having an illegal and under-equipped medical clinic. When paperwork for all animals was not provided within the two hours, the DNP began seizing animals.
The raids took place over several days, and by the end 103 animals had been taken including gibbons, reptiles, birds, and other native and non-native species. It was a horrific and terribly orchestrated procedure that saw many animals unnecessarily wounded and stressed. The ‘officials’ obviously had no idea how to handle the animals – in one case a monkey was knocked unconscious and had to be fished from a pool with a net before he drowned.
WFFT managed to provide papers for every single animal (including those ‘confiscated’) within several days of the raids – and yet none have been returned to date. The dozens of seized animals were taken into unknown possession. Many are feared dead. Others have very probably been resold back into the trade they had been rescued from in the first place. Strangely, an open wildlife trader (who says he supplies animals for zoos) also had over 30 animals seized including organ-utan babies, red pandas, tigers, white lions and monkeys. However, these animals were all returned to the wildlife trader even though he couldn’t provide any paperwork for individual animals over a month later. His ‘legal’ wildlife trader status is absolutely false by the way; CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) does not give out any licenses for the trading in baby orang-utans or red pandas – meaning he does this illegally. And yet his animals were returned, destined to lives we can’t even imagine. You can read Edwin’s take on this information here, and find the official accusations and Edwin’s counter-arguments here.
A year on – so what now? The whereabouts of those 103 animals are unknown. Court proceedings are slow at the best of times. The prosecution wants Edwin imprisoned – today the verdict was going to be read, so a group of us donned WFFT “Animal Rescuers are Not Criminals” t-shirts and supported Edwin and his wife (who is also on trial) all the way to the court. Edwin warned us he would be handcuffed, and taken away if found guilty. He seemed positive despite everything, saying he felt like a school child about to sit an exam that he knows he was well-prepared for.
We milled about court for over an hour, waiting for Edwin’s case to begin. I have never been in a courtroom before, so I found it interesting to be in that environment for a while. Eventually, though, it became apparent that whoever was conducting today’s case was ill prepared – people were coming and going, trying to gather paperwork for the day’s proceedings. We waited patiently with Edwin and his other supporters.
Finally, more than two hours after leaving the Centre, we were told that the papers were being held in a higher power, and that the proceedings would be postponed until Thursday. What does this mean? Edwin felt it was a positive sign; the court had already reached their verdict, and if it was bad they would have read the sentence out that day. He felt that because the papers were being held elsewhere, the verdict was probably Not Guilty, but superior powers wanted to check over everything before it was made official. And so, we left the court, after feeling rather unproductive, and headed back to work.
People I have spoken to since then have various feelings about what will happen on Thursday. Edwin remains positive, and is already leaking to the media that the outcome will be good. Others have said they aren’t sure, while a few are certain it will not be a good ending. I suppose we have to wait until Thursday to find out. I don’t know what will happen if Edwin gets imprisoned – his wife, Noi, is also on trial but because this is her first offense she would not go to jail. I can’t imagine how she must be feeling, though, with the prospect of her husband being taken away after all of his good intentions and the passion he has to only do positive things for animal welfare. I look at a situation like this and almost can’t get my head around it. I suppose we can only wait until Thursday.