Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation officials shows the skin of a black panther allegedly killed by Premchai Karnasuta, the CEO of Italian-Thai Development, a Bangkok-based company that helped build Thailand's Suvarnabhumi airport. Photo: AFP/Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation

A senior official and his friends may escape facing serious charges of poaching rare animals in a national park in Thailand, becoming the latest in a series of influential figures to beat charges of hunting and killing a protected species.

Last Sunday, 15 people were arrested and charged with illegally hunting a rare binrutong, or Asian bearcat, a protected species under Thailand’s Wildlife Protection Act.

The group was caught in Sai Yok National Park in Kanchanaburi and were found with guns, off-road vehicles and four binrutong paws. 

Watcharachai Sameerak, an influential district chief from nearby Dan Makham Tia, claimed himself and his group had traveled into the park to pray at a temple there. It takes eight hours to reach the Tao Dum temple along a road through the park that it difficult to negotiate.

Watcharachai and his group were arrested at the temple, where police, soldiers, Scientific Crime Detection Center 7 officials and the head of the Sai Yok National Park discovered 9mm ammunition, animal parts, a molar tooth, bones, animal flesh and black fur. 

All the members of the group were taken in for questioning, but Watcharachai denied the accusations. He was dismissed from his position on Monday. 

The officers collected all the evidence for DNA checks and the results will be known in 2-3 weeks. 

According to a witness, at about 2pm on Saturday six off-road vehicles entered Sai Yok National Park. A man nicknamed Oil claimed the group had asked permission to camp at Tao Dum temple and planned to make merit, or pray, there.

However, the head of Sai Yok National Park said Oil had called him on October 4 to ask if he would be at the park on Sunday. The park’s head man said he suspected Oil had called to check his whereabouts so he could bring all six off-road vehicles inside the park without raising any suspicions. 

A Tao Dum temple worker said he saw the six off-road vehicles and the group arrive at the temple at about 7pm and camp in front of the complex. He said the group did not act suspiciously and at 7am the following morning they took dry canned food to the monk. The temple worker said he had been there for two years and had never seen the group before. 

Sompoj Maneerat, from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, raised concerns that there was insufficient evidence to charge the group. He said it was a challenge for the investigation team to determine whether evidence found at the scene could be linked to the group.

However, the men may still be found guilty of other charges such as illegally owning wildlife carcasses, owning firearms without licenses and illegally entering a national park. 

There have been two previous high-profile cases of illegal hunting in Kanchanaburi.

The first was in February and involved Italian-Thai Development Plc president Premchai Karnasuta. He was arrested and charged with killing a black panther in the Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary.

In Premchai’s case, there was more evidence than in the latest case involving Watcharachai – Premchai brought a hunter, cooker and cooking utensils with him. Also, a black panther skin had been flayed professionally and Premchai had prepared salt to preserve the animal’s skin.

The gun used was also registered in his name, but most importantly, there was a Facebook post of his former henchman and him going hunting together. 

News of the latest case of poaching by a high-profile person made headlines in Thailand.

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