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Monkey World News

Ape rescuers go to the aid of sanctuary

Times Online

A WILDLIFE group based in Britain is to help save a sanctuary for gibbons and injured animals in Thailand after the murder of its American founder and four other people. The killings at a remote estate on the Thai-Burmese border have shocked conservationists, themselves an endangered species in a rough frontier area where greed and guns decide ecological debates.

Police have arrested a 19-year-old Burmese youth on charges of shooting dead Bill Deters, 69, a former US Air Force officer, who retired a decade ago with his Thai wife Pharanee, 59, to build a bucolic farming retreat among the misty mountains and forests.

But family friends doubt whether the teenager, Maung Htwe, a former employee at the farm, could have acted alone in the murders on May 10. The dead were found scattered around the cages and outhouses where Deters and his helpers cared for 36 rescued gibbons.

Now Deters’s widow faces the agonising choice between leaving the place her husband loved and staying on to face potential danger in keeping his work alive. “I want to stay here,” she said, fighting back tears in the home they built together during their 25-year marriage. “I want to make this place into a foundation that will bear Bill’s name.

“The fact that every morning Highland Farm wakes to the beautiful sound of gibbon song is testament to Bill’s resolve to make a difference in the world and it’s a celebration of his life.”

Her plight has drawn an immediate response from the Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, near Wareham, Dorset, which works to rescue endangered primates and had previously helped Deters and his wife.

“We were broken-hearted,” said Jim Cronin, who runs Monkey World with his wife Alison. “We’ve told Pharanee that she should move the centre within Thailand. I think she is in grave danger.” Representatives of the organisation will travel to Thailand in the next few weeks to see how it can help.

The American embassy is closely monitoring developments, reflecting growing concern among western embassies in Thailand that unsolved murders of foreign nationals are becoming all too common there.

“It seems that there’s almost a sense of impunity here, that you can get away with murder if it involves a foreigner,” said a diplomat who followed the case of Kirsty Jones, a British backpacker whose rape and murder in a Chiang Mai hostel two years ago remains unsolved.

Thai police also admit that contract killings are a frequent method of settling business conflicts and a killer can be hired for as little as £200.

Bluff, plain-spoken Deters had quarrelled over water supplies with neighbouring hill farmers from the Hmong tribe and had recently won a court case against another neighbour who had assaulted him during a dispute over the man’s heavy use of pesticides.

Not long before his death, Deters had spoken to Mick Shippen, a British writer, predicting he could face violent retribution for standing up for his rights. “It wouldn’t surprise me if I end up the victim of the typical Thai-style motorcycle drive-by shooting,” he said.

In the end it was much more brutal than that. Death came to Highland Farm on a Friday afternoon when the staff were chopping up fruit to feed to their primate charges.

So crude was the forensic handling of the scene that police later admitted they had no idea of the sequence of the deaths. Local journalists were allowed to photograph the corpses lined up carelessly together, head wounds gaping and faces smashed by bullets.

Deters’s burly body was slumped on the polished wooden floor of the kitchen he had built with his own hands. He had been shot at close range in the head. Outside was sprawled the body of his 26-year-old cook, Ratchanee Saenkhamlue. Further away, near cages where peacocks pranced, her three-year-old daughter Artitaya lay dead, shot through the head.

Among the gibbon cages, police found the body of one of Deters’s Thai workmen. Another worker, a Hmong tribesman, was also killed among the cages.

There was one survivor. Abraham Osterloh, 24, had come from Holland to work as a volunteer with Deters. He hid upstairs in the main house throughout a terrifying night before making a break for a local police station at dawn. Osterloh, now back home, said the police tried to coerce him into identifying the Burmese youth as the murderer. He suggested that more than one person committed the crime, a view supported by Deters’s widow.

“Why would they wait to be killed one by one?” she asked. Deters owned several guns but did not succeed in reaching for them. There were no signs of a struggle and every indication is that the victims were killed so rapidly that they hardly had time to react to danger.

The callousness of the murders suggested to Thai crime reporters that this was a contract killing. In these cloud-shrouded jungle valleys, amphetamine smuggling is big business, racketeers run in illegal Burmese migrants to labour for a pittance in factories and on farms, and the military on both sides of the border are said to take a cut of the action.

This human zoo does not stop people determined to work with animals. Caroline Marshall, 26, from London, volunteered to move from another Thai wildlife centre to help sort out the chaos after Deters’s death. “Slowly but surely local people will start to learn respect for the wildlife here,” she said. “Centres like this are a superb educational tool.”

And with that, heedless of gunmen, drug traffickers and local politics, she went off to clean gibbon cages in the morning rains.

Additional reporting: Mick Shippen, Chiang Mai and Peter Conradi

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