FEATURE: Science answers call of the wild
BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Wildlife Forensics’ intensifying role in animal poaching cases will be under scrutiny on tuesday when judges rule on Premchai’s fate.
Wildlife forensics HAS BEGUN playing a larger role in resolving wildlife crimes in Thailand, especially since there are rarely any witnesses to the crimes.
Forensic investigation in such instances first came into play in the early 2010s when several elephants were found slain in Phetchaburi’s Kaeng Krachan Park.
The latest case, involving the killing of a protected black leopard in Kanchanaburi last year, awaits a court verdict on Tuesday.
“Since wildlife crimes take place largely out of sight, wildlife forensics is very significant in solving them. The evidence obtained at the scene might be the only evidence available,” said Pol General Jarumporn Suramanee, who helped pioneer the science in Thailand.
“In fact, evidence is more reliable than witnesses, because humans often make mistakes and sometimes retract their testimony. More critically, though, the victims of wildlife crimes can’t speak, so we need the evidence to speak for them.”
According to Jarumporn, a member of an ad-hoc panel of the National Wildlife Protection and Preservation Committee appointed to follow up on the leopard slaying uncovered in February last year, wildlife forensics follow the same tenets as those used in human crimes.
He served previously as commissioner of the Office of Police Forensic Science and an adviser to the Royal Thai Police Bureau. Wildlife forensics, he said, follows the same tenets as those used in the deaths of humans.
“Forensic evidence helps explain how the death occurred – the modus operadi or method of operation. This will lead to the motivation and then to the culprit.”
Jarumporn’s first foray into wildlife forensics was in the case of two slain elephants, one found with its penis and tusks removed.
Gunshot wounds to the animal’s skull were examined and ballistic tests were conducted on AK-47 rounds revealed in X-rays. Reconstructing the event, investigators realised the fatal shots came not from above, but straight on.
Jarumporn then zeroed in on minority groups living in the area who were known to own AK-47s. Arrests followed.
The same approach was applied in late 2012 in the same national park, in a case involving hunting for sport. Jarumporn led the forensics team that tracked down the wrongdoers, among them a senior police officer.
Last year, a high-profile businessman was accused of hunting for sport – Premchai Karnasuta, president of Italian-Thai Development Plc.
On February 4, 2018, rangers found Premchai and three companions camped in the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, in a no-hunting zone. Arrest records allude to “suspicious and threat-posing activities”.
The rangers led by Wichian Chinwong seized weapons, ammunition and animal carcasses, including that of a black leopard skinned to the bone.
Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, a former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park, joined the crime-scene investigation, gathering more evidence.
Forensics officers from Police Regional 7 Office intensified the inspection, collecting still more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.
Jarumporn has said they all fit together.
The Region 7 police ran forensics and ballistics tests on the leopard’s hide and other remains and tracked the trajectories of the fatal bullets.
There were eight wounds to the big cat’s forehead, right ear and torso, with the trajectories indicating the shots came from above, front and back – all probably from a shotgun.
The weapons seized at the scene were all documented as belonging to Premchai and he admitted as much when apprehended.
On February 13, the investigation team reconstructed the crime, this time following trajectories to the points where the bullets came to rest – two in tree bark and two on the surface of a rock in a stream.
They found a lump of black fur and bloodstains where the rangers had collected pieces of the leopard’s organs, likely indicating the spot where the animal was skinned. A further search turned up two leg bones in the stream and a piece of the leopard’s colon.
An examination of Premchai’s pick-up truck was prompted by suspicions the gunshots had originated there.
On March 1, Chaiwat and Police Region 7 team reviewed the findings on bullet trajectories to try and nail down the exact origins of the shots. The team could not find a match with any previously suspected location. Re-examining the traces in the trees and marks left in the rock, investigators concluded they were from the same bullets that killed the animal, but they could not identify the exact type of bullet.
Even amid these setbacks, there was no loss of determination.
Blood and tissue from the leopard and other animals killed at the site were sent to the National Parks Department’s forensics lab, where DNA – believed to “never be wrong” – might yet establish the truth.
“DNA is tremendously specific and cannot be wrong,” said Kanita Ouithavon, chief of the Wildlife Forensic Science Unit. “These are not just samples but ‘evidence’ that’s admissible in court.”
Her team has primarily tried to determine the animal species, crucial in knowing if it were under official protection. In the case of the black leopard, they need to prove whether the flesh and blood recovered at the site all belonged to the same animal.
Studies confirmed that it did, and other samples came from wild birds. It had been proved that the animal meat found onsite wasn’t brought there from elsewhere, as has been speculated early on.
Kanita and her team members have served as key witnesses in other wildlife cases.
The latest one they are working on involves the killing of a bearcat in Sai Yok National Park in Kanchanaburi. The deputy chief of Makham Tia district is a suspect in this slaying. Chaiwat believes the evidence in the black leopard case is strong, built on carefully conducted wildlife forensics.
Premchai and his companions were indicted on April 30 on different charges. Premchai faces six charges, from poaching a protected species in a wildlife sanctuary and possessing wildlife carcasses to collecting wild products and carrying weapons in public. The case was filed with Thong Pha Phum Criminal Court in late November and the last of the defence witnesses testified in mid-December.
Deputy National Police chief Pol General Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, who is overseeing the investigation, said on Thursday he was confident justice would be done.