Three years after 147 tigers were seized from the notorious Tiger Temple in Thailand, government officials are reporting that 86 of the rescued animals have died. The official cause of death, according to the Thai government, was a viral disease exacerbated by inbreeding of the big cats.
For years leading up to the big cats’ removal from the Buddhist temple, formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, that facility had served as a popular tourism attraction where visitors took selfies with the tigers and bottle-fed cubs. Yet a National Geographic expose and work by the Australian conservation nonprofit Cee4Life revealed controversial practices, including alleged animal abuse and speed breeding of the big cats to supply tiger body parts for illegal trade.
Such reports heightened public pressure to shut down the facility even as hundreds of so-called “tiger farms” have sprung up across Southeast Asia. In 2016, the tigers—a mix of species and subspecies—were confiscated from the Tiger Temple, located about 100 miles west of Bangkok, and placed into government custody. (Learn more: illegal tiger trade fed by tiger farms.)
Sybelle Foxcroft, the cofounder of Cee4Life, first started investigating the temple in 2007 as part of her master’s thesis work and later collaborated with National Geographic on its 2016 reporting.
She said that news of the animals’ deaths devastated her, but it was ultimately not surprising. When she visited the temple, she saw firsthand signs of severe neurological impairment from disease and maintains that the tigers’ illnesses were obtained there, not at the government facilities.
“One particular tiger, Mek Jnr, showed severe symptoms in 2015 when he was walking into walls, his back legs weakening, disorientation at times,” she wrote in a statement on the Cee4Life website.
“Again, I wrote publicly about Mek Jnr and I was just about begging the Tiger Temple to help him, but they ignored it all and said he was fine. He was far from fine and he would end up dying in agony from this.”
“I also know that if the Tiger Temple had continued, and the tigers were not confiscated, they would have still died of the same illnesses, but the difference would be that the Tiger Temple would have skinned the dead bodies, and used the body parts for sales.” (Read how the Tiger Temple has been linked to black market sales of tiger parts.)
Since their 2016 removal from the temple, the tigers have been living at two government-run wildlife sanctuaries in Thailand. In a statement to media, Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said that the animals ultimately died from laryngeal paralysis, a viral respiratory disorder likely exacerbated by the inbred animals’ weak immune systems. Some of the animals also suffered from complications due to canine distemper, a condition that can affect dogs and tigers. (Learn how dogs are infecting tigers with canine distemper.)
Reuters reports, however, that the temple’s caretaker, Athithat Srimanee, disputes the animals died due to inbreeding and temple-acquired infections; instead he contends the animals died due to poor conditions in government care, such as small cages.
"The death of more than half the tigers rescued from Tiger Temple within a matter of just a few years is, frankly, scandalous," says Will Travers, President of the Born Free Foundation, a group that opposes taking any animals from the wild. "It requires a full, independent, investigation reporting to the Prime Minister's Office, the findings of which should be placed in the public domain."
The Thai government said in a statement that it is continuing to provide care for the 61 remaining tigers, and that the conditions the tigers are living in are safe, designed to reduce their stress, and include regular checkups from veterinarians. It has not said if there are any plans to move the remaining animals to any other facilities.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society's nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to email@example.com.