By PIYAPORN WONGRUANG
THE SUNDAY NATION
IT IS NOT the first time that wildlife forensics has been applied to solve a mystery in wildlife poaching, without having to rely on the testimony of witnesses at the scene.
But this time, forensics officials are far better equipped with a bulk of experience as well as technology that has brought an investigation close to the truth – that a black leopard is now known to have been killed by Premchai Karnasuta’s gun, with eight bullet holes in its body.
On February 4, Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary’s rangers encountered the president of Italian-Thai Development company and his party, who had camped in a no-permit zone beside the Huai Pachi stream and committed some “suspicious and threat-posing activities to the forest and wildlife”.
The rangers decided to alert their chief, Wichian Chinwong, who later discovered dead wild animals that he was sworn to protect, including a black leopard that was skinned to the bone.
Since February 4, investigators have applied a variety of forensic techniques to solve the case, from a crime scene investigation to calculating bullet trajectories. Wildlife forensic expert Pol General Jarumporn Suramanee has been invited to advise on building the case for the prosecution, while Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, a former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park, oversees the work along with forensic police from the Provincial Police Region 7.
Kaeng Krachan is where Pol General Jarumporn, a commissioner from the Office of Police Forensic Science and an adviser to the Royal Police at that time, worked along with Chaiwat to apply wildlife forensics for the first time to solve a high-profile sport poaching case in 2012.
Just a few days after the principal evidence was collected at the scene, including the skinned black leopard, a crime scene investigation (CSI) then followed in Thung Yai.
Led by Chaiwat, now a chief of the National Parks Department’s forest crime suppression taskforce Phaya Sua, the forensic police from the regional 7 office travelled to the crime scene on the Maharat-Tikhong route to inspect the site and collect further evidence.
According to the police, they collected evidence from 21 spots around the scene, ranging from the campsite to where the animal carcasses were found to where the firearms were hidden.
“The authorities have collected the principal evidence and the surrounding pieces, and they connected to one another so [comprehensively] that they can pinpoint what happened before, between, and after the incident,” explained Jarumporn, after a panel was set up on February 8 to follow up on the prosecution of the case.
“So, it’s better for the suspects to confess, or it would waste time fighting the case, otherwise.”
Besides conducting the crime scene investigation, Region 7 office police ran forensic and ballistic checks on the black leopard’s skin and its remains to find the trajectories of the bullets that killed the animal.
Led by Colonel Sommai Chotikanawin, the police first learned that there were at least five, and then eight bullet holes on the leopard’s forefront, right ear, and its body. The trajectory suggested that it was shot from above and from the front to the back. The holes also suggested that they were bullets from a shotgun. A further check on firearm documents discovered that the gun belonged to Premchai.
Biological traces were also examined. Tissues of the leopard, as well as other wildlife killed at the scene, were sent to the department’s lab. Leopard tissues were confirmed as coming from the same animal. Other tissue was affirmed as belonging to wildlife, rather than domesticated chicken, proving that the animal meat found on-site was not brought in from restaurants outside the forests as first speculated.
To reconstruct the scene, Chaiwat on February 13 led the police team to the site again. They created a mock-up of the scene intended to reflect reality on the night that the hunting party was discovered. But still missing from the scene mock-up was the location of the spot where the leopard was shot.
The team then traced all bullet trajectories from the bullet shells collected at the roadside, and found two samples of torn tree bark and two impact spots on a rock in the stream. They searched further but found only a lump of black hair on the ground.
The team also found bloodstains on the ground nearby, where the rangers had recovered pieces of leopard organs, weighing 17 kilograms in total. They believed that this was the spot where the leopard was skinned.
Chaiwat ordered the rangers to continue searching near the campsite for the missing right leg of the leopard. Hours later they found two leg bones and one sliced piece of colon in the stream.
Premchai’s pick-up van was also sent to forensic police to check for DNA traces as the team suspected that the leopard had been shot from the van.
On March 1, Chaiwat again led the forensic police team to the site, along with deputy commander of the regional 7 office, Pol Maj-General Kritsana Sabdech, to examine the bullet trajectory ranges. The team wanted to nail down the locations from where the shooter had shot at the leopard.
The forensic police team performed re-enactments of the bullet trajectory ranges in the lab and found that they did not match any locations suspected to be the shooting site. Kritsana said it was still possible that the shooting spot was somewhere nearby but as the team could not pinpoint the location where the shots were fired, it was difficult to identify where the leopard had stood.
Examining bullet traces on the trees and the rock, police concluded they were the bullets used to slay the animal, but could not identify the exact type of bullet.
Chaiwat said the case was strong. The latest examination of the bullet trajectory ranges would lead all investigators to agree on the events. The records of the case should be based on such wildlife forensics, he said.
“They should then be able to picture what happened in the forest, so when they file their investigation report to the court, they can correctly and fairly testify about the events,” said Chaiwat.