A business magnate caught allegedly poaching protected animals including a rare black leopard plans to build a road through a forest that is home to a host of threatened wildlife including leopards, tigers, elephants and primates. Opponents say the two-lane road would be “disastrous” and would threaten the survival of precious species in south-east Asia.
There have been calls for the construction chief to step down from his role.
Premchai Karnasuta, the president of Italian-Thai Development, one of Thailand’s biggest construction firms, was arrested with three other suspects at a World Heritage site wildlife sanctuary last month, when rangers found them with animal carcasses.
Premchai and the other three men were caught camping in the Thungyai Naresuan wildlife sanctuary and had with them the skin of a rare black female Indochinese leopard, a muntjac deer, a pheasant—all protected species—and soup made from the leopard’s tail.
They face charges of illegal hunting, illegal possession of carcasses of protected animals and gun-related charges. Police seized rifles and ammunition.
They later said four tusks found at Premchai’s house were from African elephants and had therefore been traded illegally.
The Thai people are outraged by the poaching case, and demanding justice. Premchai was granted bail after being detained for two days.
Conservationists, residents and an armed ethnic group oppose the plans for the new highway, which would run from the Thai border to a planned economic zone in Myanmar. The 93-mile road, due to be built by Premchai’s Bangkok-based construction giant, would cut through the Tanintharyi forest of southern Myanmar, which is also home to marbled cats and gibbons.
Lee Poston, of WWF, said: “The road in its current form will be disastrous for many of the rare, endemic species in this wilderness.
“It will cut through the Dawna Tenasserim wilderness, which supports globally important populations of Asia’s most iconic wildlife including tiger, Asian elephant, gaur and banteng [cattle]. Other rare mammals in the landscape include Fea’s muntjac, the Malayan tapir that now survives in protected areas as scattered populations, slow loris, the elusive clouded leopard, sun bear and binturong [the bearcat].
“While we don’t know exact numbers of leopards living within the area, we do know that the Dawna Tenasserim landscape which the road cuts through contains the largest population remaining in mainland south-east Asia.”
Mr. Poston said without any major redesign the road would be “devastating” and would have a major impact on tigers, leopards and elephants, restricting their migration, increasing deforestation and allowing poachers to enter the forest more easily. It would also increase numbers of animal collisions with vehicles, mudslides and soil runoff into the river, he said.
The forest has the biggest population of wild tigers outside India and Nepal.
Tigers are on the brink of extinction in the wild, and the forests of southern Tanintharyi are one of the last refuges for the species in the country. The big cats are already under threat there from forests being turned into palm oil plantations, the wildlife trade and hunting.
The new highway could act as a barrier between the forest and another tiger zone further south.