Top Thai zoo official shot dead amid missing wildlife scandal

The illegal trade in wildlife generates about $25bn in criminal income each year [File: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images]
The illegal trade in wildlife generates about $25bn in criminal income each year.

A top zoo official in Thailand has been shot dead as he was pursuing an investigation into the suspicious disappearance of rare animals from a zoo in a southern province. Police Capt Komalpan Srithep said that Suriya Saengpong, the director-general of the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand, was shot several times on Saturday at the office of the Songkhla Zoo. Srithep said the suspect, a senior official at the zoo, fled the scene of the shooting and killed himself in his living quarters.

The motive for the killings was not immediately clear, though Srithep said the suspect was one of the four senior zoo officials being investigated, according to officers, the suspect, Phuvadol Suwanna, a vet who also lived at the zoo, was under stress because he had been ordered to transfer to another position while the investigation was under way. They said he took his own life about an hour after shooting the director.

“The gunman was the director’s longtime friend, they were both from southern provinces,” Jatuporn Buruspat, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, told AFP news agency. Missing animals from Songkhla Zoo became news headline in Thailand this week when leaked documents showed that Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Varawut Silpa-archa was dissatisfied with an initial probe into the disappearance of a rare albino barking deer from there in February.

Songkhla Zoo director Chalermvudh Kasetsomboon had reported that he had obtained photos that indicated the deer was eaten by a Burmese python, but his assertion was received with scepticism, the online site Isra News, which published the leaked documents, said there were suspicions that the missing deer, along with other animals, was sold to or stolen by wildlife traffickers. Varawut then ordered a new investigation, for which Suriya travelled to Songkhla from Bangkok to launch on Saturday.

Albino animals in Thailand, especially elephants, are believed to be sacred signs of power and good fortune and are often gifted to the royal family, the rare animal, named Snow, was born last December and was related to a deer which was presented to Thailand’s Queen Mother as a gift. Barking deer, or muntjacs, are known for the sound they make, which acts as a warning when they encounter a threat.

The illegal trade in wildlife generates about $25bn in criminal income each year, according to TRAFFIC, an international conservation group that monitors such activities, it is believed to be the world’s fourth most lucrative criminal activity after trafficking in drugs, humans and arms. Gun-related violence is not rare in Thailand, though it is unusual for a senior official to be killed as a result of a workplace dispute.

In February in northeastern Thailand, a Thai army soldier who believed he had been cheated by his commanding colonel in a property transaction shot dead the officer and then went on a shooting rampage that killed 31 people, including himself.

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