BANGKOK — After nearly a decade being rehabilitated for a life in the wild, a bear set to be freed in Khao Yai National Park two weeks ago never made it.
She fell out of the helicopter taking her there and died.
It was actually Feb. 11 that the 80-kilogram bear’s new life was cut short by the unexpected plunge, but park officials only announced the incident Saturday. An investigation has been launched to find out how it happened, according to the regional park agency director. He defended the use of the helicopter, saying this was the agency’s first airborne gaffe.
“This never happened before. It’s the first time a mistake like this happened,” said Wirach Chutupanaporn, head of Prachinburi’s wildlife conservation agency. “We have to figure out the lesson, what went wrong, so that we don’t have this kind of mistake again.”
He said the inquiry will take up to 30 days.
Wirach also hinted that no official would be punished, even if the investigation faults human error, because such accountability would be demotivating.
“This is not about finding who’s in the wrong. Everyone had a desire to accomplish their mission,” Wirach said. “If we tell people that when there’s a mistake and someone is made guilty over it, there won’t be people with the courage to carry out missions.”
According to park officials, the bear was confiscated from someone keeping it illegally about a decade ago. She is an Asiatic black bear, a species considered “vulnerable.”
The bear, who was unnamed, spent 10 years in wildlife rehabilitation with the goal of being released back into the wild. When that day came on Feb. 11, a vet drugged the animal, rangers strapped it into a net, and a helicopter flew it into the heart of Khao Yai National Park.
But something went wrong along the way, and the bear fell to her death. Although media reports suggest the bear might have awakened and struggled during the flight, Wirach said they were wrong. He said the vet and rangers involved were experienced in transporting live animals.
“This is not true. They aren’t amateurs,” Wirach said. “We don’t do shoddy work.”
He said it’s common for the park department to transport dangerous animals by helicopter over dense patches of jungles where other choices of travel are impossible.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, the head of National Park Department said he was surprised to only learn about the incident from media reports. He said that after signing approval for the bear to be transported on Feb. 11, the officials in charge of the operation never notified him of the bear’s death.
“I just found out after the incident was reported in the news,” Thanya Nethithammakul said, adding that he has already reprimanded Wirach for the incident.