BANGKOK – A group of protestors gathered outside the Bangkok Art & Culture Center in the heart of the Thai capital wearing homemade paper masks in the likeness of a black panther.
The dozens of Thais who showed up for the improvised gathering one recent Sunday afternoon weren’t there for an animal-themed costume party, though. They were there to protest the killing of an endangered Indochinese leopard in a wildlife reserve.
Using a black bin bag and a paper cut-out of a hand-drawn machine gun, one of the protesters enacted the killing of the big cat. The black leopard was allegedly gunned down in early February by powerful construction magnate Premchai Karnasuta, whose company has long enjoyed lucrative government contracts.
The wildlife rangers who discovered his hunting party inside a World Heritage wildlife sanctuary in Kanchanaburi province in central Thailand reported that Premchai and three companions had skinned the dead predator and feasted on some of its remains.
During a subsequent meeting with police, the mogul was photographed receiving deferential treatment from a senior police officer.
“We’ve had enough of impunity for rich people,” says one protester, a young woman who studies at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University. “Some rich people in Thailand think they can get away with murder. We can’t accept that.”
The poaching of the black leopard has enraged Thai animal lovers. Yet despite the public uproar, local conservationists are concerned that the billionaire will be let off lightly for a wildlife crime that would likely see an average citizen sent to prison for years.
Premchai, who is facing several charges including trespassing and poaching, has denied any wrongdoing. “I didn’t do it,” he told local media. He hasn’t explained, however, why he was in the wildlife sanctuary and how the carcasses of the freshly killed leopard and several other endangered animals ended up in his possession.
“Everyone knows what happened, but we can’t do anything,” says Patcharapol Tangruen, an influential Bangkok-based street artist who uses the moniker Alex Face.
Patcharapol is famous for his trademark cartoon character called Mardi, a dour-faced child in a rabbit costume.
Incensed by the tycoon’s denials, the artist has recently spray-painted Mardi in a new getup onto a wall in Bangkok: a black panther costume with a pointy Pinocchio nose. “All I can do [about this injustice] is to paint about it,” he explains.
Lots of other graffiti artists have been doing that too. On walls around the capital and other Thai cities pieces of graffiti featuring black panthers have become commonplace. In one elaborate mural, created on a wall in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Premchai is depicted between two leopard skulls with a military ribbon rack serving as a blindfold for him.
The artwork is a poignant take on the “see no evil” stance of local authorities when it comes to powerful figures. “I try to avoid in-your-face messages in my work but in this case I felt I had to be direct,” says Piyasak Khieosaard, the graffiti artist who has created the mural. “This poaching case exemplifies what’s wrong in Thailand on many levels.”
Piyasak focuses on environmental issues in his street art and employs subtly creative imagery to bring attention to pressing environmental concerns from climate change to deforestation.
“I think as artists we should do more than just try to create beautiful images,” he says. “We should shine a spotlight on important issues.”
In a country ruled by a military government that routinely clamps down on dissent, persistent calls for justice by street artists and small groups of protesters have served to keep the focus on the poaching of the leopard as well as larger social issues.
Without such calls, public interest in the case might have long faded from memory or might never have captured attention in the first place.
“If the leopard had been killed by an average Joe, it probably wouldn’t have received much attention,” says Sasin Chalermlarp, an environmental activist.
“But this isn’t just about a guy walking into a forest and shooting a leopard. It’s a clear case of double standards. We can’t allow certain privileged people who don’t respect laws to get away with ruining the hard work of conservationists who have been trying to protect forests and endangered species.”
Thais tend to be wary of the country’s courts when it comes to alleged crimes by the rich and powerful. In one notorious incident in 2012, Vorayuth Yoovidhaya, an heir to a multi-billion-dollar fortune as the grandson of the Red
Bull energy drink empire’s co-founder, allegedly drove his Ferrari at high speed into a policeman on a motorcycle, killing him in a hit-and-run accident. Despite having long had an arrest warrant out for him, he remains at large, carrying on with a jet-setting lifestyle.
In 2010, another scion of a wealthy family, Orachorn Thephasadin na Ayudhya, drove her car into the back of a passenger van on an elevated expressway in Bangkok, causing the van to flip over and plummet to the road below. Nine people died in the crash. Orachorn, who was 16 at the time and didn’t have a driving license, got off with a suspended prison sentence and 138 hours of community service.
She will be officially allowed to drive again next year when she turns 25.
Even court officials have come in for flak for allegedly breaking laws or at least ignoring them. In a recent case that has caused outrage, a billion-baht housing project for justice officials in Chiang Mai was found to have encroached on a protected biodiversity-rich forest at the foot of the northern province’s famous Doi Suthep mountain.
Thousands of locals have staged protests calling for the housing project to be demolished so that trees could be re-grown in its place. In response to the outcry, Thailand’s government has announced that the 45 newly built houses on the site will not be occupied and the environment will be rehabilitated.
But it’s the death of the black leopard that continues to arouse the fiercest passions. On a Saturday in early May, three months after the big cat was killed, scores of people gathered again at the Bangkok Art & Culture Center.
They came to reiterate calls for Premchai to be brought to justice.
“A lot of conservation issues fall into a gray area. This poaching case is black and white,” says Petch Manopawitr, an environmentalist who works for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“That rich guy had no business being in that forest and shooting those animals. Will he be brought to justice? Ninety-nine percent of the people I’ve spoken to think he’ll get away with a light sentence. If he was a poor villager, he’d be put away. If he does get off, that will be a slap in the face for justice and for conservation.”
By Tibor Krausz