The scandal over apes being trained to perform kickboxing bouts for tourists at a suburban Thailand theme park widened yesterday.
Just days after police ordered the shows to stop and began investigating whether up to 110 orangutans were acquired via an Indonesian racket, some apes have disappeared.
Police had ordered DNA tests on the primates to determine their provenance. But the park's owners claim that 41 of the endangered great apes, each worth £6,600 on the black market, died of natural causes, and that all the carcasses were destroyed. "It's really suspicious," said Major General Sawek Pinsinchai, chief of Thai Forestry Police.
The park's manager, Pin Kewkacha, refused to be interviewed by The Independent on Sunday. He told the Bangkok Post that his large orangutan troop arose through a breeding programme. Yet no adult orangutans were found at Safari World, and females normally can reproduce only once every eight years after they reach maturity.
Thai police have made several raids on Safari World, where, since 1988, pairs of juvenile orangutans have been clad in satin shorts and boxing gloves and made to spar for tourists. So far, no trafficking case has reached court.
Last autumn, after officials seized the frozen corpse of a baby orangutan from a trader, Luethai Tiewchareon, the park owners faced charges of keeping protected species without permits. Police went to confiscate the orangutans 11 days ago, tipped off about possible smuggled apes.
One Safari World worker told reporters that the 41 dead apes had diarrhoea and breathing problems in the spring. "We had to burn them to prevent spread of the disease."
The International Primate Protection League said Mr Pin might try to sell apes to Chinese zoos, listing them "captive born". It knew of six baby orangutans that were brought to Thailand on a fishing boat from Indonesia, bypassing customs. Poachers had killed the babies' mothers.