I’m at Thailand’s famed Tiger Temple, three hours’ drive northwest of Bangkok, sitting cross-legged opposite a youngish, saffron-robed monk named Jakkrit Apisuthipangsakul.
An opulent altar looms behind him, centered on a large Buddha plated in gold leaf, along with smaller statues and religious objects strewn with fresh flowers. It’s framed by a pair of elephant tusks. Photos and idealized murals depict the temple’s founder and leader, a bespectacled abbot, Phra Acham Phoosit (Chan) Kanthitharo, who is sometimes pictured with tigers. Jakkrit is his secretary.
The temple, formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, doubles as an attraction for visitors who want hands-on contact with some of its 147 captive tigers. Busloads of tourists come to pet and feed cubs, play with tigers, walk them on leashes, and take selfies with a tiger’s head in their lap. The enterprise is estimated to generate income equivalent to three million dollars a year.
Controversy has long swirled around the temple. Former workers and animal welfare advocates have alleged that the tigers have been abused and exploited: beaten, fed poorly, in need of veterinary care, and housed in small concrete cages with little opportunity for exercise or time outdoors. The monks have denied this.
To animal welfare advocates, the allegations have made the temple’s tigers a symbol of the need to protect an animal that is increasingly under threat in the wild. A century ago, more than 100,000 of the majestic cats roamed across 30 Asian nations. Today, just 3,200 tigers hang on, precariously, in 11 countries.
Now there are new allegations against the temple: that it has been involved in the illegal trade of tigers.
Last month, photographer Steve Winter and I went to the temple to look into an incident that occurred just over a year ago. According to our sources, in late December 2014, three adult male tigers vanished from the temple: seven-year-old Dao Nua, three-year-old Facram 3, and Happy 2, who was five.
The abbot declined to be interviewed. When I ask Jakkrit where those tigers went, he glances around. “We still have our tigers here,” he says. “They still all completely stay in the Tiger Temple.”
All three tigers had been microchipped and registered with the government, according to the temple’s longtime veterinarian, Somchai Visasmongkolchai. It’s a legal requirement in Thailand for captive endangered animals.
But in February 2015 Somchai resigned and went to the authorities. He handed over the microchips, which, according to Adisorn Nuchdumrong, deputy director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, had been cut out of the tigers.
Then in April, government authorities went to the temple. They confirmed that the tigers were missing. They also discovered that 13 tigers lacked microchips and found the carcass of a tiger in a freezer.
Now an Australian nonprofit, Cee4life (Conservation and Environmental Education for Life) says it has new information indicating that tigers have been taken illegally to and from the temple since at least 2004. The group’s “Tiger Temple Report” was given simultaneously to Thai officials and National Geographic last month and was released publicly this week.
It includes what the group says are veterinary records from 1999 and 2000 indicating that four of the temple’s original tigers were “wild caught” and a 2004 document stating that a female tiger named Nanfa had been “imported from Laos.” A 2005 contract signed by the temple’s abbot and provided to National Geographic details the swap of a male from the temple with a female from a commercial tiger-breeding operation in Laos. An audiotape acquired from an unnamed temple adviser records a conversation between the abbot and Somchai about the three missing tigers.
Cross-border commerce in live tigers—or their skins, bones, or other parts—violates both Thai law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates wildlife trade under a treaty signed by 182 nations, including Thailand.
Nothing has come to light about the fate of the missing tigers, and no one has been charged or prosecuted. But the government intends to relocate the tigers from the temple to state wildlife facilities in the next few days.
Allegations of tiger smuggling at the temple were made in 2008, when National Geographic reported on a study by the British wildlife group Care for the Wild. Around the same time, a group known as the International Tiger Coalition said the temple had made “no contribution whatsoever to wild tiger conservation.”
Likewise, the allegations in this week’s report contradict the temple’s image of a sanctuary devoted to wildlife conservation, a place where monks live in harmony with tigers.
The illegal wildlife trade is linked to the same transnational criminal networks that run gun, drug, and human-trafficking operations, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which estimates that this global business generates $19 billion dollars a year.
Tiger products are worth a fortune on the black market. Commercial breeding operations literally farm tigers like pigs and chickens; the tigers are eventually killed, and their body parts sold. Farming tigers violates a 2007 CITES decision that “tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.”
The impact of illegal trading from a captive facility like the Tiger Temple extends far beyond the lives and welfare of 147 tigers, says Debbie Banks, a tiger expert with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. That’s because the underworld sales of captive tigers and their body parts stokes demand—meaning that more tigers are killed in the forests and jungles of India, Sumatra, Thailand, and elsewhere across their range.
Captive tigers slipped into the illicit trade “help fuel a growing demand for tiger products in China and other parts of Asia,” Banks says.
Tiger parts “are now consumed less as medicine and more as exotic luxury products,” according to a 2014 report commissioned by CITES. Tiger-bone wine (brewed by steeping a tiger skeleton in rice wine) and the cat’s magnificent skins (used in high-end home décor) have become coveted status symbols among China’s elite.
According to Banks, more than 5,000 tigers are held on farms in China. Thailand ranks second, with about 950. Other operations are scattered across Laos and Vietnam. How many of them are run as tourist attractions, like the Tiger Temple, but are really fronts for trading tigers, dead or alive, is unknown.
Sybelle Foxcroft, an Australian wildlife management expert, is the force behind the “Tiger Temple Report.”
Foxcroft became a wildlife investigator by accident. She’s an Aussie who went to the temple in 2007 to do research on captive-tiger management for her University of Queensland master’s thesis. That allowed her to photograph and shoot video and gave her access to areas usually off-limits to foreigners.
On April 19, her second night there, she recalled later, she saw something that would set her off on a nine-year investigation and prompted her to found Cee4life. As she lay awake in the steamy 90-degree heat, she heard a vehicle driving through the compound. Soon after came a spine-chilling series of roars and the cries of panicked cubs. She hurried toward the tiger cages to investigate.
Six flashlights played on one cage, which was occupied by a female named Sang Ta Wan. The tiger raged and smashed herself against the bars. Then she fell silent. The door creaked open.
“What I saw that night has haunted me ever since,” Foxcroft says.
Sang Ta Wan lay motionless on the floor. A man threw her two shrieking four-month-old female cubs into sacks and tossed them into the back of a truck.
Terrified that she’d be discovered, Foxcroft raced back to her bungalow near the temple gate. From there, she says, she watched the driver stop and speak to the abbot and other monks before driving away.
The next morning, Foxcroft says, a still groggy Sang Ta Wan screamed for her missing babies. Just outside her enclosure was a small cage containing a pair of two-week-old male cubs that had appeared overnight. One was dead. The staff named the survivor Harnfa.
Foxcroft later noted a pattern: Female tigers disappeared, but males—which typically behave better with the tourists—remained. When she returned from a two month trip to Australia that summer, she noticed that three adult females had vanished: Reung Dao, Darika, and Vayu.
One evening soon after Foxcroft returned, in mid-August, she saw monks holding walkie-talkies during their daily meditation time. Then the same truck arrived and carted away another female, Fareung.
The next day, two staff members told Foxcroft that the cat had gone to a tiger farm in Laos. “I realized then,” Foxcroft says, “that this was an ongoing operation that involved multiple people, both inside and outside the temple.”
Foxcroft says she later discovered that one of the original tigers, a popular male, Mek, was absent. She learned that a Thai worker nicknamed Bank had been there when Mek disappeared, in January 2006, so she videotaped an interview with him using an interpreter.
Foxcroft asked what Bank had seen. The interpreter said, “He saw people give [Mek] an injection to make him go to sleep, and he helped lift him from the cage onto a truck.”
Visitors kept asking to see the famous Mek. In 2007, Harnfa, the cub that had shown up the night that Sang Ta Wan’s cubs were taken, suddenly became Mek Senior, says Sylwia Domaradzka, a former temple volunteer. A newborn cub was then named Harnfa.
“It seems like what the monks do is get rid of some tigers and then either bring in replacements for them—or rename other tigers to cover it up,” Domaradzka told me. This way, she said, none of the tigers are ever really “gone.”
In May 2009 a female cub named Iserah went missing. Ash Waldron, an Englishman who stumbled into a job at the Tiger Temple while traveling through Asia in 2009, was there when she left. “Iserah” returned six months later—as a male.
Waldron says he saw other tigers go. Part of his job was shift work feeding baby tigers every few hours. One night, he saw a litter being born. By morning, there was no trace of them. When he asked where they were, a Thai staff member said, “No, there’s no tigers.” When Waldron argued otherwise, he says he was quietly told, “They’re going to a tiger farm in Laos.”
During my interview with Jakkrit, I hand him a document from the “Tiger Temple Report.” It’s the 2005 contract formalizing the trade with the Laotian tiger farm, signed by the abbot and the farm’s representative—and co-signed by Jakkrit.
I ask him how many tigers have been brought in from Laos. “We swap one tiger, only one,” he says, explaining that the abbot wanted to enhance the temple’s breeding program.
In trying to downplay the incident, Jakkrit had acknowledged that the abbot ordered this cross-border trade in an endangered species. Even the trade of one endangered tiger violates both CITES and the Thai Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act. And breeding tigers defies a 2001 government order forbidding it.
According to the temple’s website, its first tiger, a sick cub, appeared at the monastery in 1999. In Buddhist tradition, creatures in need of care are commonly taken to the local temple.
The cub survived for five months, but during that time, the abbot took it along on his morning rounds as he collected alms—food and other donations—from people in the community. The young tiger garnered attention from locals and foreign travelers. (The legendary bridge over the River Kwai, in nearby Kanchanaburi, is a major tourist attraction.)
By 2000, four male and four female cubs had arrived, bringing what the temple website describes as “tiger harmony.” (These cats are among the ones listed as “wild caught” in veterinary records obtained by Cee4life.)
Whether they were orphaned, as temple brochures claim, came from tiger farms, or were poached, is unknown. Regardless, according to Adisorn, the head of the national parks department, the temple did not notify the government, and holding endangered animals without a permit is illegal.
In 2001, officials from the department discovered the violation. They “seized” the tigers, says Adisorn, but allowed them to stay at the temple. “At that time we didn’t have a vet. We didn’t have the know-how to keep the tigers,” he said. His agency issued orders that they were never to be bred.
“As the years went by,” the temple’s website says, “the tigers grew up and to the abbot’s surprise and delight, they started to reproduce.”
The tigers were cash cows, especially the cubs. When Winter and I visited in December 2015, we paid $139 apiece, a cash-only “donation” for a program that allows up to 30 people to bottle-feed and pet cubs. Additional fees for activities like exercising the cubs or taking intimate photos with adult tigers can push up the cost to more than $200.
Since 2008, Foxcroft says, “between six and 20 tiger cubs were needed every three months for tourists to cuddle.” When they get older, she says, “they become too dangerous.”
The only way to meet this demand, Foxcroft explains, is “speed breeding”: removing newborn cubs from their mothers. That quickly puts females in heat again, and with a gestation period of 16 weeks, they can bear at least two litters a year—instead of one litter about every two years, as in the wild.
In 2007 the temple had 18 tigers. By 2010 the population had swelled to 70-plus. Today there are 147.
Foxcroft has compiled a list that identifies 281 tigers that passed through the temple from 1999 to 2015. According to her, the difference between 281 and 147—134—is too great to be accounted for by deaths alone. Tigers in captivity normally live from 16 to 22 years.
“So if you do the math,” Foxcroft says, “where are all those tigers?”
The Missing Three
On December 20, 2014, footage from the temple’s security cameras shows a sedan and a truck entering the compound after nightfall, according to Cee4life, which obtained the film. They pull up to Tiger Island, where the cats are housed. People move around, some with flashlights. The vehicles leave almost exactly two hours later.
It was Christmastime, and the temple’s international staff and volunteers were out partying in nearby Kanchanaburi, says Andy Sambor, a long-time staffer. According to temple rules, anyone not inside the temple by the 6 p.m. evening meditation must stay out until the next morning—so they all slept in town. It’s something that doesn’t happen often.
When the staff made their rounds on December 21, Dao Nua’s enclosure was empty, Sambor says. Scratch marks were etched in the cage floor and in the ground outside. The cat had fought so hard that some of his claws were lying around, torn off in the struggle.
Just before dusk on December 25—another night when the foreign staff were in town—temple cameras record two men arriving on motorbikes. At 9:22 p.m. one of them escorts the same two vehicles inside. This time they enter and leave twice. They’re gone by midnight.
The next morning, Happy 2 and Facram 3 had disappeared.
On a private Facebook chat that day, a temple staff member posting as “Lynx Rufus” wrote to a former volunteer: “Just today three tigers were missing … at the end of the day they told us that they trade 3 tigers for a white one which still not here and at the meditation time one monk basically told us that its [sic] not a big deal, that tiger are ok and to shut [up].”
Removing tigers from the temple had to be carefully orchestrated. There are six locked gates between the entrance and the tigers’ cages. A monk named Kasaem Pholchai, the abbot’s right-hand man, kept the keys.
A high-ranking temple adviser whom Foxcroft calls Charlie videotaped an interview with Kasaem in late December. Charlie has received death threats since presenting information to the Kanchanaburi police about what he calls the “tiger robbery.”
“A Botched Initiative”
Gary Agnew is a Canadian who has served on the board of the Calgary Zoo and has taken classes on caring for captive tigers. He’s spent extended time at the tiger temple every year for a decade—an insider who advises the monks on animal welfare.
Agnew tells me he’s done his own inquiry about the missing tigers and has given his information to the Kanchanaburi police. “For lack of a better word,” he says, “the three tigers were poached. Employees were involved. It was an inside job. It came to light because it was such a botched initiative.” He says the staff mistakenly grabbed the wrong tigers—microchipped, registered, traceable cats.
According to Agnew, the three missing tigers are likely dead. That opinion aligns with something in Charlie’s recording. “Yes, yes, that is our policy,” the abbot says. “Otherwise they would have to take live tigers out. ”
We had met Charlie at a secret location, and Winter videotaped him in silhouette to disguise his identity. Charlie said that it’s against the law in Thailand to discuss an active police investigation—and because he hadn’t fully trusted the local police, he held back some of his material, which he instead gave to the Department of National Parks, to Foxcroft, and to us.
It’s been 11 months since Somchai came forward with microchip evidence, and there has been no public action in the case.
“My biggest fear is that it will be swept under the carpet,” Agnew says.
In Bangkok, I meet with Adisorn Nuchdumrong in his office at the Department of National Parks. We discuss recent restructuring at the Tiger Temple, which the temple says has split into separate entities: the monastery, a corporation that will handle a new tiger enterprise, and a foundation.
Former Kanchanburi police colonel Supitpong Pakjarung, now vice president of the foundation, told me that a new safari-style tiger sanctuary is planned. Another area will allow hands-on contact with tigers, says Agnew, and the cats will be allowed to breed freely. The first phase of this project will accommodate 500 tigers, and in December an application was submitted for a zoo license.
The Department of National Parks has been trying to confiscate the temple’s 147 tigers since April 2015, on grounds that they’re state property, which makes it illegal to earn tourist money from them.
I ask Adisorn what has prevented the move. “It’s a very sensitive issue,” he says. The temple employs local people, and Buddhist customs make removing animals from a monastery controversial.
Adisorn says temple officials have been trying to negotiate, asserting that they would allow the government to take about half of the tigers if he would grant them a zoo license. But, Adisorn says, “there should be no tigers in the temple.”
This week his agency was prevented from removing the first batch of tigers, and two uniformed men now guard the temple’s front gate. The agency wants to remove all 147 tigers, Adisorn says, and if necessary will get a court order and enlist the help of police and the army. The tigers will be distributed among nine government wildlife facilities.
Meanwhile an investigation by the Kanchanaburi police into the missing tigers seems to be stalled.
Proving criminal activity within any religious institution isn’t easy. In Thailand, a devout Buddhist country, it’s challenging to even accuse, let alone prosecute, a monk—especially a high-ranking figure like an abbot.
But there are precedents, and the environmental crimes division of the national Royal Thai Police is adept at investigating alleged wildlife smuggling and related criminal activities. Adisorn says he will request that the Royal Thai Police take over the case from the local Kanchanaburi police within the next few weeks.
There are still many unanswered questions: How many tigers have been traded from the temple since 1999—and who was behind the trading? What are the trade routes? Is trafficking from the temple part of a larger wildlife trade network in Thailand?
If it’s proved that the temple has illegally traded its tigers, I ask Adisorn, will his office approve a zoo license?
“If we have evidence that they’re involved with illegal wildlife traffic,” he replies, “we will not grant it.”
Sharon Guynup writes about wildlife and environmental issues and is coauthor of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat. She is a 2016 Wilson Scholar. Follow her on Twitter.