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Official transferred over gaur deaths

Park chief preecha moved; forest closed as death toll hits 16

IN A SAD LEAD-UP TO National Wildlife Protection Day today, more gaur carcasses have been found in Prachuap Khiri Khan's Kui Buri National Park, bringing the total number found this month to 16, in what is now considered the country's worst-ever mass death of the species of giant wild cattle.

The forest area was closed yesterday pending the conclusion of an investigation into these "unnatural deaths" and has prompted the transfer of park chief Preecha Wittayapan.

Natural Resources and Environment Ministry permanent secretary Chote Trachu yesterday said he had instructed acting National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (NWPCD) chief Nipon Chotibal to close the park's "Kunchon Project" area indefinitely until officials determine the gaurs' cause of death. Preecha, who was transferred on Nipon's order to an unknown position, could also face a fact-finding committee's probe about problems that could have led to the 16 gaur deaths. It would be concluded in a week, according to Chote.

Nipon, in yesterday's press conference, said the park had three herds comprising over 100 gaurs and the first gaur carcass was found on December 2.

A December 23 meeting on the gaurs' cause of death found testing of water samples initially showed no trace of metal contamination, although other tests, such as for chemical contamination, were not yet ruled out, he said.

The probe focused on infection and toxins and the meeting agreed to collect more samples for further tests for diseases and also check on the health of other bovines in the area. A committee with two sub-panels was set to probe the gaur deaths, he added.

A Kui Buri kamnan and village headmen, along with 13 wildlife conservation organisations, had the Border Patrol Police's explosive ordnance disposal unit inspect the carcasses, for fear villagers might be held as scapegoats.

Despite reports by the NWPCD and veterinarians that the gaurs appeared not to have wounds, the group urged the EOD unit to probe for metal or bullets in the carcasses. Yesterday's inspection, which was also observed by state agencies and media, yielded no trace of metal or bullets. Calling it the "country's worst and highest loss of gaurs", the group suggested the deaths might have resulted from conflict within the NWPCD and certainly weren't the local villagers' doing.

Royal Forest Department chief Boonchop Sutthamanaswong will seek suspension of the TPI cement factory's concession certificate for a 500-1,000-rai plot in Muak Lek-Thap Kwang Forest Reserve in Sara Buri's Kaeng Khoi district. It follows the discovery of some 10-20 serows - one of the country's 15 protected wildlife species. Boonchop urged the Sara Buri Forestry Office to work with Kaeng Khoi district chief and nearby villages to care for the serows.

Boonchop said there was a possibility the department would apply for a declaration of the area as a community forest.

NWPCD chief Chote also instructed Boonchop to investigate whether the TPI factory breached any concession conditions. If it had, this could lead to the factory closure order.

The move stemmed from a video clip circulating on social media of a serow being attacked within the TPI factory area in Sara Buri on December 20.

Thailand had 500-1,000 serows left, living in areas such as Sara Buri's limestone valleys, also the site of mining facilities, said NWPCD deputy chief Theerapat Prayoonsit. Such mining and mountain explosions had threatened the near-extinct serows' habitat. The animals were also hunted, he added.

Regarding the case of a TPI employee accused of torturing a serow, Kaeng Khoi police investigator Pol Lieutenant Chok-amnuayporn Khamnu said accused Wichai Wethana, 40, had surrendered to face charges of having a serow in possession, punishable by a four-year jail term and/or Bt40,000 fine, and of torturing the animal, punishable by a one-month jail term. Wichai was to meet police late yesterday to give information and a metal pipe he allegedly used to beat the serow. The injured serow was reportedly later released back to nature.

A team of 15 wildlife protection officials yesterday searched for the injured serow, though team leader Sutthipong Thaemtabtim suspected it was dead by now.


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