Thai official suspended after being caught with bearcat carcasses, weapons

A Thai official has been suspended after being caught with bearcat carcasses and hunting weapons

A Thai official has been charged by police after being caught with bearcat carcasses and hunting weapons in a national park, police said Monday, the latest case of poaching allegedly committed by powerful Thais.

Senior district official Vacharachai Sameerak was part of a group of 12 found by National Park officials on Saturday night in Sai Yok Park, in Kanchanaburi province.

"After checking their cars, there were four bearcats paws found, together with guns and ammunition," said police chief Thanee Sangaunjeen, adding that the group did not have authorisation to enter the park.

The hunting weapons found in their vehicles included a rifle with a silencer and a pistol.

The 12 were charged with violating forestry, wildlife and national park laws, which they all denied.

The Interior Ministry suspended Vacharachai from his position on Monday, as well as two other civil employees who were with him on the excursion, said the Kanchanaburi governor in a press briefing.

"The suspension is for the duration of the investigation so that it can be unhindered," Jirakiat Bhumisawasdi said.

The rare bearcat -- also known as a binturong in Asia -- is a protected species in Thailand and is classified as 'vulnerable' on the global IUCN Red List.

Edwin Wiek of animal protection group Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand said locals usually eat the bearcat as bushmeat, while its paws are sold illegally as medicine.

"It's not something you can openly sell because most people know it is a protected species," Wiek said, adding that the animal can be found in the markets of Thailand's border provinces and in neighbouring Laos.

This is the latest case of powerful Thais being ensnared by the law when it comes poaching rare and protected species.

In February, construction tycoon Premchai Karnasuta was arrested after rangers stumbled on his camp in another national park in Kanchanaburi and found animal carcasses -- including a black leopard -- and guns.

Premchai, one of Thailand's wealthiest moguls, has denied the poaching charges levelled against him and was released. The case remains under investigation.

The public was incensed by Premchai's release, who saw it as yet another example of the rich and powerful enjoying impunity.

"I believe the case of Premchai has set a very bad example," said Wiek.

"These people can follow in his footsteps and get away with it."