KAO LOOK CHANG, Thailand – For more than a decade, a sprawling wildlife refuge south of Bangkok has been rehabilitating and caring for animals abandoned or abused by their owners. The sanctuary, run by a nonprofit organization, has won international acclaim for its work, and volunteers come from around the world to help care for the hundreds of animals there. But the sanctuary's mission has hit a nerve with local authorities: Its owner is now on trial for illegal possession of endangered species, charges he says show the political clout of poachers and others who profit from the lucrative trade on exotic wildlife.
The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand sanctuary covers 25 hectares (61 acres) of jungle near the village of Kao Look Chang. It was launched 12 years ago with only a few dozen animals by Edwin Wiek, a Dutch national who left his job in the fashion industry to dedicate himself to the conservation movement.
With the help of a local temple, the sanctuary has rapidly grown. It now shelters about 400 animals, including elephants, bears, gibbons and reptiles.
Work at the sanctuary includes everything from feeding and housing the animals to providing them with advanced medical care. On one recent afternoon, the staff put Nuru, a 20-year-old moon bear handed over to the sanctuary from a temple last week, under sedation for dental surgery in the sanctuary's small but well-equipped hospital.
The sanctuary was raided in February and about 100 animals were seized. Wiek is charged with sheltering wildlife illegally and a verdict is expected next month.
Wiek said the sanctuary has grown beyond his expectations and is strongly supported by the local community. But he said his outspoken positions against the illegal trade in wildlife have angered poachers, who he said have influence in the government.
"Politics and corruption are very big problems . My case went into court last month. I think I will win the case because my evidence and bookkeeping are in order," he said. "Nevertheless, it's very inconvenient and very stressing when this happens to yourself."
Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy director of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Conservation, said the raid on Wiek's sanctuary was not politically motivated and was not an attempt to shut it down.
"The raids were carried out as a normal procedure," he said. "We conducted multiple raids nationwide and did not target any foundation in particular."