Zoo Murder Prompts Fresh Probe Into Disappearance of Rare Animals

Zoo Murder
Suriya Saengpong, director of the ZPOT, shot dead yesterday morning during a meeting

An investigation is underway to determine if personal conflicts and the mysterious disappearance of rare animals at Songkhla Zoo were the motives behind the deadly shooting of the Zoological Park Organisation of Thailand (ZPOT) chief yesterday.

Suriya Saengpong, director of the ZPOT, was shot dead yesterday morning during a meeting called to look into the mystery surrounding the disappearance of two rare albino barking deer at the Songkhla Zoo.

The gunman, identified as Phuwadol Suwanna, a senior veterinarian and head of the zoo’s conservation, research and animal health division, shot and killed himself in his living quarters inside the zoo compound shortly after.

The tragedy adds a new twist to the months-old mystery which came back into the spotlight on Thursday when Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa said he did not believe zoo officials’ claims that a python had eaten the rare animal.

A male albino barking deer born at the zoo in December last year went missing in February. While it is still unclear what happened to the animal, another albino barking deer of the same generation went missing last month.

Mr Silpa-archa ordered a new investigation, and Mr Saengpong travelled from Bangkok to Songkhla yesterday morning to get the process started. It was reported that Mr Saengpong had ordered the transfers of several zoo officials while the probe was ongoing.

“I was told that Mr Saengpong went to Songkhla Zoo to meet its director at his office,” said Thanetphol Thanabunyawat, secretary to the minister. “He then called a meeting with zoo officials but I don’t know the details of the talks.

“During the meeting, one veterinarian based at Songkhla Zoo suddenly pulled out a gun and fired shots at Mr Saengpong in the face and body. He died instantly. The vet fled,” said Mr Thanabunyawat.

Mr Thanabunyawat said he was keeping Mr Silpa-archa and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha updated on the incident, which he described as “violent and brutal”.

Police recovered a total of 19 spent shells at the scene. Mr Saengpong was shot multiple times in the chest, arms and head while Mr Suwanna was found dead with a single gunshot wound to the temple.

Pol Maj Gen Asan Chansiri, chief of Songkhla provincial police, said yesterday police are investigating all possible motives.

A source on the ZPOT board said Songkhla zoo management is under suspicion of trying to cover up the disappearance of the deer.

Chaowalit Chukachorn, chairman of ZPOT board, admitted yesterday there are concerns about the possibility of state-run zoos being used to aid the illegal activities of wildlife traffickers.

Back in 2004, about 10 parrots went missing from the zoo’s aviary. A complaint was lodged with local police who eventually tracked down and arrested a vendor and had the birds returned to the zoo.

The albino barking deer scandal dates back to a deer that a villager presented to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit The Queen Mother more than a decade ago. Her Majesty later gave the deer to Dusit Zoo. Its offspring were subsequently given to other zoos, including Songkhla Zoo.

In the first missing deer case, an internal probe committee unofficially concluded it might have been taken out of the zoo.

Last week, the director of Songkhla Zoo, Chalermwut Kasetsomboon, said he had obtained photographic evidence that the second albino barking deer was eaten by a snake, with the conclusion confirmed by a vet.

The claim was challenged by critics who said the python would not have been able to move had it swallowed the deer which weighs 3-5kg.