It's the hottest part of the day at a forest monastery in western Thailand, and tourists are led by the hand, one by one, into the beating sun to pet chained tigers and smile for the camera.
Every day at this unusual "Tiger Temple," as many as 800 tourists pay 300 Thai baht (9 U.S. dollars) each for their chance to interact with the endangered big cats.
The tigers—several of which were born at the compound—live alongside monks and volunteers in what one temple handler called a beautiful blend of Buddhism and conservation.
Though the remote monastery near the Burmese border is considered a must-see by some tourists, it's what the public doesn't see that has prompted a growing chorus of wildlife groups, both internationally and in Thailand, to call attention to its conservation missteps. (See Thailand map.)
Not only does the temple fail to preserve dwindling tigers as advertised, experts say, a new report released today by the U.K.-based conservation group, Care for the Wild International (CWI), asserts that the monastery has been trading the animals illegally with a tiger farm in neighboring Laos.
"What we feel is important is that people know this is not real conservation—people are being fooled. They are exploiting wildlife," said Guna Subramaniam, the Southeast Asia director for CWI.
CWI conducted its investigation between 2005 and 2008 with the aid of people who enlisted as temple volunteers. Subramaniam also visited the monastery in 2006 and 2007.
The temple staff dismisses any involvement in illegal trade.
The temple's abbot, Pra Achan Bhusit Chan Khantitharo, began taking in abandoned and orphaned tigers in 1999, according to the temple's literature. Giving up or abandoning unwanted animals at temples is a common Buddhist practice that givers believe brings them good karma, Subramaniam said.
Soon after the temple opened its gates to tourism around 2000, monks began breeding the tigers. The temple now cares for up to 16 of the predators at a time.
The monks say that tourist dollars and Web site donations will go toward putting the rare predators back into the forests of Thailand, where they number between about 250 to 500. There are fewer than 4,000 wild tigers left in the world, according to the conservation group WWF.
"We want to become the premiere tiger facility—no one will be able to compete with us," said Rodrigo Gonzalez, a tiger handler who has lived at the temple since 2002.
But the report says the monks have paid little heed to conservation, instead illegally exchanging tigers with a tiger farm in Laos, Subramaniam said.
Tiger farms fuel the skyrocketing black market in illegal animal parts, such as tiger bones and penises, which are used for traditional Chinese medicine. (See a photo of a tiger skin on the black market in Myanmar [Burma].)
The report's investigators found that new tigers brought to the temple are often given the same name as an outgoing tiger—in essence, the animals are replaced. In particular, older male tigers are swapped for young females, possibly because the males become less manageable as they age.
The CWI report also found that though the first cub may have been donated legitimately, the rest were purchased from a farm.
A 2005 agreement signed by a Lao tiger farm owner and the temple abbot, obtained by CWI, describes the purpose of the tiger exchange as "conservation."
Yet under the international wildlife-trade treaty CITES, exporting or importing tigers across borders is illegal—unless appropriate permits have been issued to a scientific institution with a conservation purpose, the report said.
There is no evidence the temple has such a permit, according to the report. The Thai government considers it a sanctuary for temporarily holding animals, not a conservation facility.
Samart Sumanochitraporn is director of the Wildlife Conservation Office under the Bangkok-based Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
The Thai government, which by law owns the temple's animals, "is considering the future of wild animals at the temple with the most important issue the safety and welfare of the animals," Samart said in a translated email.
"The animals will stay at the temple before being relocated to [a] suitable location," he added.
As for illegal trade, Samart said "there is no confirmation that the temple has been concerned in the dealing of tigers."
Gonzalez of the Tiger Temple also asserts the temple does not trade tigers. But, he said, the monks don't ask about the origins of animals that appear at their gates.
That's because the monks consider the tigers—along with the monastery's eclectic menagerie of more than 200-odd animals—part of their spiritual family.
The Buddhist temple's openness has also made it an easy target for conservation groups' criticisms, he said.
"If people want to harp on tiger trade and exploiting tigers, go to China," he said.
"We're trying to do something good here. If [conservation groups] don't see what we're doing here, that's their loss."
Edwin Wiek leads the nonprofit rescue group Wildlife Friends of Thailand.
"I was quite amazed that they're putting on a show, parading these tigers around as if they were rescued from the wild, which is not true—they were taken from a tiger farm," Wiek said.
New Zealander Fiona Patchett, a volunteer at the temple from 2005 to 2006, witnessed the exchange of a cub on the temple grounds, including the signing of its contract. The temple staff told her the young animal came from a breeding farm in Laos.
She thought it was a legitimate swap, and that the temple had permits to exchange tigers—only to realize later that it was illegal. During her experience, she said, six or seven tigers disappeared without explanation.
The tigers—which stay in their cages 21 hours a day—are also sometimes abused by temple staff, Patchett said. She saw staff sitting on tigers, hitting them with rocks and fists, and playing with their genitals. Such abuse is also detailed in the new report.
Though some past visitors to the temple have commented on Web sites that the tigers appear drugged to keep them docile, the CWI report found no evidence of drug use.
No Conservation Sense
The temple also breeds the big cats without regard to their subspecies, a practice that creates hybrids and negates the purpose of conservation, experts agree.
"If you're talking about cross breeding of subspecies, of animals out of their range, it's scientifically and ethically wrong," Wiek of Wildlife Friends said.
But Gonzalez, who like the majority of the volunteers has no previous conservation experience, said that the Tiger Temple's goal is the overall preservation of tigers. (See tiger photos.)
"They're dwindling at such a pace, we need to stop the division and stop saying, We're only concerned with Bengal tigers," Gonzalez said.
"Conservation organizations like to put themselves on high pedestals, but we don't split hairs," he said. "You try to save as much as you can."
Largest Tiger Sanctuary
In that vein, Gonzalez and the temple monks envision creating the world's largest tiger sanctuary, encompassing 40,000 acres (16,187 hectares) with an option to expand to 120,000 acres (48,562 hectares).
Under this plan, temple workers would teach tigers how to hunt and release them, so their offspring could be "wild."
Such a plan is unrealistic, experts say. No tigers raised in captivity have ever been successfully reintroduced into the wild, said Mahendra Shrestha, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Save the Tiger Fund.
"The temple makes it look like there is an easy way out for tigers in the wild," Shrestha said. "It gives the complete wrong picture of tiger conservation."
Ashok Kumar, vice chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, agreed.
"Captive tigers do not contribute to conservation of wild tigers as they cannot be reintroduced back to the wild. The world is full of captive tigers—we do not need anymore," Kumar said.
"It is the wild tiger whose survival is in doubt," he added.
Ultimately the focus should be on those remaining wild tigers, Wiek said.
"We still have stock that is protected and sustainable. We still have a chance of having a future, and that's what we should focus on—not tigers in cages that are not pure subspecies," he said.
(Related: "Harrison Ford Endorses New Global Tiger Initiative" [June 9, 2008].)
Once in a Lifetime
Back at the temple, a monk named Kruba Som sits in the shade near the tiger cages, casually positioning a young tiger's paw on tourists' heads as they line up for photos.
"People want once in their life to come here," he said through a translator.
Over the din of delighted laughter, he said he wants tourists to "be happy with tigers like the [monks] are happy with them."
But Wiek and other conservationists worry that Buddhism's power can trick unsuspecting tourists into thinking they are saving tigers.
"The making of pictures for 30 dollars with the tigers is a lucrative circus act," Wiek said, "nothing more or less."