In February, Thai business magnate Premchai Karnasuta was arrested with guns and carcasses of endangered animals in Thailand’s Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary — a UNESCO World Heritage site. Among the animals confiscated was an incredibly rare and endangered black Indochinese leopard (or black panther). It was skinned, its pelt flayed out. Sadly, as so often happens in countries where wealth can bend the law, despite hefty charges, Premchai quickly made bail and subsequently failed to appear for several police summons. Perhaps Premchai thought his money made him above the law, and maybe he is right — Forbes put his net worth at $240 million, making him Thailand’s 35th wealthiest person — but Thai artists aren’t letting him off the hook so easily.
Angered at Premchai’s illegal and gruesome treatment of endangered animals, not to mention the authorities’ lax punishment, some artists wanted to share their voice in public. This can be a challenge anywhere, let alone in a Thailand, where there are severe restrictions on press freedom and public organizing. Not waiting for permission, graffiti artists went to work.
One such artist was Headache, who stenciled a black panther with a mute symbol in Bangkok. The black panther in particular had become the symbol of Premchai’s case; its beauty and power, coupled with how endangered the species is, make it a powerful shorthand for the need to protect wildlife.
While watching news of the case, Headache told me over email, he became afraid the culprit’s wealth would make the story would disappear. He felt compelled to go out and make the mural to keep Premchai’s misdeeds in the news. “No wildlife should be killed just for fun anymore,” he wrote. “The story must not be silenced.”
However, Headache noticed that although his work was surrounded by other graffiti, the black panther murals were quickly being whitewashed. Graffiti is illegal in Bangkok, so despite the discrepancies between what was being erased and what was being left behind, there wasn’t much he could do.
At the same time, a group of activists calling itself T’Challa — after the main character in the blockbuster movie, Black Panther — staged a protest in front of the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre on March 4. Simultaneously, Chiang Mai professor and activist Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, hearing of the murals being erased, organized for artists to paint about the issue near his home, on private property. By relying on private property in public view, Rungsrit hoped that artists could keep the issue in the media, and perhaps hold the police accountable.
But the investigation into Premchai, who was caught red-handed, was proceeding more slowly than many felt was necessary. A sense of preferential, unjust treatment fueled more protests, and the public outcry continued to build, eventually prompting the deputy police chief charged with the investigation, Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, to suggest that, instead of pestering him, activists should all go pray. In response, activists Nalee Intharanan and Anuchart Thanachai organized a mass prayer for justice at a shrine in front of the provincial office in Chiang Mai.
Inspired perhaps by Rungsrit, the animal advocacy group A Call For Animal Rights Thailand launched the “Pair a Wall with an Artist” campaign, with the goal of connecting willing property owners with eager artists. The group’s page explained that, “If [you] delete one, there will be 100 more.” With memes, protests, art, and activism all working together to keep the story alive, the message was spreading.
Wanting to contribute to the campaign, artist FAIMA made her first mural ever (above). “I want everyone to stand in the fight for the panther,” she told me over Facebook. “We should not be silent on this issue.” She also shared her drawing (below) for free, for anyone wishing to make stickers.
While the art and protests spread throughout Thailand, the campaign also went international. Thai graffiti artist Mue Bon completed a giant rooftop black panther piece in Melbourne, Australia, writing over Facebook that it’s “tragic that the law enforcement tries to protect the people [who committed the crime] instead of protecting the wild animals.” Mue Bon unmuted his panther, hoping to give the endangered species a voice.
Who are these people allowing strangers to decorate their walls with panthers? For one mural host in Bangkok, the message and his occupation felt perfectly aligned. “Animal rights are not something to be given by humans, but is something each of them deserves,” Phureerut Ratanavanich, co-owner of Pet and Aquatic Animal Hospital (PAQ) in Bangkok, told me over email. “That’s the core value of our work here at PAQ. To provide healthcare and fair treatment to all animals.”
On March 16, Phureerut held an opening party for his commissioned mural. The title of the 50-foot-long mural and the event, “The Last Kill,” references Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (1495–98), and he hopes that this incident can be the last killing of any protected species. The mural features nearly a dozen figures — many of them stylized and anthropomorphized renderings of endangered animal species — arrayed around a table, echoing Leonardo’s iconic mural.
The mural involved 10 artists (October29, Jecks Bkk, Fuckhead, Panda Dewone, Chakit, Bonus Tmc, Bows, Santi, Mad13, and Gustone) from Thailand, led by Panda Dewone. Panda Dewone was especially enraged by the incident because it took place inside a wildlife sanctuary. “We wish that this mural will represent the voice of the black panther, and all other animals in Thailand,” Panda Dewone wrote me over email.
“Our ultimate goal is for this mural to stand for all animal rights, rather than any particular case or event,” Phureerut said. He added that, so far, the response to the mural has been “100% supportive from all avenues; be it social media, general bystanders, our clients, newsgroups, and especially from friends and colleagues in the veterinary community.” Because Phureerut’s mural is on his property and does not explicitly criticize any public figure, he is not worried about the authorities giving him problems.
As for justice for the panther and other animals Premchai killed, we will have to wait and see — though his latest decision isn’t encouraging. In the meantime, the artists keep raising their voices, and thankfully people are providing walls for them to do so.