Thailand's controversial Tiger Temple is losing its tigers.
The monastery and popular tourist attraction, the focus of allegations of animal abuse and trafficking for 15 years, was raided this week by authorities who planned to remove all 137 tigers held at the temple, three hours northwest of Bangkok.
The tiger attraction gained worldwide attention as a place where visitors could pet, feed, bathe, and walk the cats around on leashes, snapping selfies along the way. It has been a gold mine to the monastery, which is formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, bringing in an estimated three million dollars a year.
But conservation organizations and former temple workers have long accused the temple's monks of keeping the cats in jail-like enclosures, feeding them poorly, and physically abusing them. Critics also have accused the temple of trafficking endangered species in violation of Thai wildlife laws and an international treaty.
The temple's monks have rejected accusations regarding their care of the tigers, saying they have done nothing wrong.
Criticism of the temple escalated in recent months after new allegations of abuse surfaced—among them, a report by National Geographic that included a temple insider's claim that three of the temple's tigers had been killed.
On Monday Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation began removing the tigers, an operation that required about 500 people. On Wednesday, after officials had tranquilized and removed six tigers that had been set loose in the temple's kitchen facilities, they investigated a tip from a temple volunteer and made a stunning discovery. Inside an industrial-size freezer they found the bodies of 40 frozen tiger cubs, all one to seven days old. They’d been dead for no more than two days, said Adisorn Nuchdumrong, the wildlife department’s deputy director.
“We were shocked to see that,” he said.
Tiger births and deaths are supposed to be recorded with government authorities, but no cubs had been reported or seen at the temple for many months, said Tuenjai Nuchdumrong, who heads the wildlife department’s conservation office. She added that the temple's monks secretly had been breeding tigers, which is against the law in Thailand.
Then, on Thursday, a monk named Jakkrit Apisuthipangsakul—the abbot’s secretary—was arrested trying to leave the temple with two tiger skins in his car, 10 tiger teeth, and about a thousand amulets that contained small pieces of tiger skin, Tuenjai said. According to Reuters, two devotees and two monks were also taken into custody as accomplices, charged with possession of endangered species products, which is illegal under Thai wildlife laws. By Friday, authorities had charged five people with wildlife trafficking, Adisorn said.
These latest developments are likely to raise more questions about how tigers have been treated at the temple, and fuel activists' claims that the government has not moved quickly enough to protect the animals there. Although the tigers have been kept by the monastery and its monks, the animals, are technically are owned by the state, because when tigers were first discovered at the temple, in 2001, they lacked proper permits.
Government officials have been under increasing pressure to shut down the tourist attraction and remove the tigers. That has been a complex task, in part because the temple is a popular tourist attraction and because legal intervention at the temple is a sensitive issue in a devout Buddhist nation.
Adisorn said the monks have obstructed the wildlife department’s efforts to protect, and more recently, seize, the tigers. He said the government's plan this week was to remove tigers in batches of 30 to 40 a night, until all the animals were relocated to government facilities. But on Monday, only eight tigers were taken out because temple staff had unchained a dozen tigers in an open area where tourists were still present, according to Suppakorn Patumrattanathan, who heads the wildlife department’s health division.
No one was injured, but the wildlife department has filed a complaint in court, alleging that by releasing the tigers, temple workers were trying to harm government officials and were endangering the public.
Temple workers also let tigers out of their cages in other parts of the facility, which hindered efforts to remove the cats, officials said. But by the end of the day Thursday, 102 tigers had been moved to government facilities. Adisorn expects the operation to be completed by Saturday.
A Tangled Tale
The saga at the temple began in 2001, when the wildlife department discovered seven tigers in the monastery. The temple’s abbot and spiritual leader, Phra Acham Phoosit (Chan) Kantitharo, lacked proper permits to hold endangered animals, “so we seized [ownership of] the tigers,” Adisorn said.
But at the time the wildlife department lacked the facilities and know-how to care for the tigers, he said, so the monastery was allowed to keep them—with orders not to breed or make money from them. The monks ignored the directive, and the department turned a blind eye. The venue grew into a lucrative tourist hot spot, and by April 2015 the tiger population had soared to 147, according to the wildlife department.
Then, in December 2014, three adult male tigers vanished from the temple, animals that were microchipped and registered with the government. An ongoing, 16-month investigation by local police into the animals’ disappearance has not produced any charges.
Other pending cases against the temple include unlawful possession of six Asian black bears and 38 rare hornbills and other birds—animals seized by federal wildlife officials in two separate raids in the spring of 2015. Two Asiatic golden jackals and two Malayan porcupines, seen at the temple during an inspection, disappeared before officials arrived to seize them and the birds.
All these animals are endangered species protected under the Thai Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty ratified by 182 nations, including Thailand, that regulates that trade.
In January National Geographic reported the allegations that three cats missing from the temple had been killed and taken away in the middle of the night. A report by the Australian nonprofit Cee4life, meanwhile, alleged that many tigers had been moved in and out of the temple since at least 2004.
Both reports included accounts by former temple staff members and volunteers about disappearing cubs and adult tigers. Audio and video recordings released with the Cee4life report suggested that the temple’s abbot was aware of, and was possibly directing, a black market trade of tigers.
Sybelle Foxcroft, Cee4Life’s founder, documented 281 tigers at the monastery from 1999 to 2015, nearly twice as many as the 147 that government inspectors found there last year. “So what happened to them all?” she asked.
In an interview last December, Jakkrit, the abbot’s secretary, acknowledged that the temple had been involved in cross-border trade with a tiger farm in Laos that swapped the temple a female tiger for a male. An addendum to the Cee4Life report, presented to wildlife department officials in May, alleges other illegal activity: the sale, gifting, and international transport of tiger body parts from the Tiger Temple, a claim that critics say may have been validated by Jakkrit’s arrest on Thursday.
One of the key sources for both the Cee4Life and National Geographic reports was an insider who at the time wished to remain anonymous out of concern for his safety. Last week, he revealed his identity: Soochaphong Boonserm, the Tiger Temple’s former pro bono legal adviser. He said he stepped forward “to tell the truth, to protect the other tigers and myself.”
In an interview with the Bangkok Post, he alleged that the temple's abbot has used funds raised through donations and tourist fees to build tiger temples in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Australia. Soochaphong said he wanted to bring attention to the fact that no one at the temple has been charged in the investigation by the local police into the three missing tigers.
Meanwhile, the temple has filed a lawsuit accusing him of professional misconduct in an attempt to get his legal license revoked. Soochaphong said he considers himself in such grave danger that he says he must move every few days.
A discovery by investigative reporter Andrew Marshall published by the Sydney Morning Herald may offer a clue as to why the investigation has dragged on: In 2010, he learned that the Tiger Temple had recently donated 700,000 baht (then worth $23,490) to Thai police and soldiers. The former Kanchanaburi police colonel, Supitpong Pakjarung, is now vice president of the Tiger Temple Foundation and manages a new entity, the Tiger Temple Company Ltd., that the monastery has created as part of a plan to build a zoo.
Tigers in Crisis
The animal welfare issues raised by the goings-on at the Tiger Temple come at a time when wild tigers are under threat throughout their range in the wild.
Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said that as many as 6,000 tigers are raised on commercial farms in China to be sold for their parts. Thailand’s captive tiger population is the world’s second largest—about a thousand cats.
Captive-bred tigers slip into the illegal international trade and feed a growing demand for tiger products, mainly in China—especially their pelts, which are used in luxury home décor, and their bones, an ingredient in expensive tiger-bone wine. This high-end market places a huge price tag on the head of every remaining wild tiger. Just five months into 2016, more tigers have been killed in India than in an entire 12-month period in any of the past 15 years. The global population of the five tiger subspecies remaining in the wild now is less than 4,000.
The Thai government’s move against the temple doesn’t necessarily mean that the Tiger Temple will be out of the tiger tourism business. In April the wildlife department granted a five-year zoo license to the new Tiger Temple Company Ltd., the entity the temple created last year.
The wisdom of granting a zoo license to an entity that has been linked to allegations of illegal wildlife trafficking has been widely questioned. But the wildlife department's Tuenjai said that because no one from the new company has been convicted of a serious crime, there was no legal justification to reject the application.
The license means that the Tiger Temple Company might be able to buy back up to 50 of the seized tigers at public auction if its proposed $3.4 million zoo is ever completed. A zoo license also would allow the temple's new business to legally breed tigers.
There is another possible ending to this story. The 137 tigers, plus 10 the government removed from the temple earlier this year, could live out the rest of their days in a large sanctuary that would be financed and built by Four Paws, an organization based in Vienna, Austria, on land leased from the government. Four Paws has created humane wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa, Jordan, Germany, and other countries, complete with wildlife hospitals and educational facilities.
In early June, a working group made up of representatives from Four Paws, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, and other nonprofits, as well as academics and officials from several Thai government agencies, are brainstorming in a series of meetings over a proposed facility that could house 200 big cats. The idea was initiated in March by Austrian ambassador Enno Drofenik and Thailand’s environment minister, Gen. Surasak Karnjanarat.
“This is a long-term solution to a big problem in Thailand,” said Amir Khalil, a Four Paws veterinarian and project leader. “There are many cats in captivity in poor conditions—and there’s a need for a sanctuary for big cats.”
The Planned Zoo
The temple's zoo plan calls for a 10-acre facility just outside the temple grounds. According to Tuenjai, visitors will have opportunities for up-close photos with tiger cubs. Cee4Life’s Foxcroft says this means cubs would be taken from their mothers soon after birth and handled by humans from a very young age. In the wild, a tiger mother and her cubs stay together for about two years.
But the bigger concern, said Edwin Wiek, who heads the nonprofit Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, is that with a zoo license, people who have been involved with Tiger Temple operations will be allowed to resume breeding despite the ongoing investigation into an alleged history of wildlife trafficking.
In a letter submitted to wildlife department officials, 14 organizations opposed to the temple’s zoo plan asked officials to “deeply scrutinize the Tiger Temple’s long history of illegal acquisition and trade of protected wildlife species; influence enforcement officials to arrest and convict those involved; adhere to the CITES commitments applicable to Thailand—and revoke this license.”
If anyone connected directly to the Tiger Temple Company is convicted of illegally trading wildlife, the new zoo license would be revoked, officials said.
For years Thailand has been widely known to be a wildlife trafficking hub, and the country has been under scrutiny recently because of its robust trade in ivory. Thailand’s penalties for wildlife trafficking are relatively lenient compared with other nations' laws: a potential four years in prison, a 40,000 baht (about $1,100) fine, or both. The Thai law is being revised, as officials weigh stricter measures, Tuenjai said.
The Tiger Temple isn’t the only captive-tiger facility in Southeast Asia alleged to have been engaging in illegal tiger trade, says Debbie Banks, a tiger expert with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “Thailand is showing leadership in taking on the Tiger Temple, but we encourage authorities across Southeast Asia to urgently reevaluate what kind of facilities are allowed to keep and breed tigers.”
Adisorn says his agency has been trying to confiscate the temple’s tigers for 15 months since wildlife officers went in to search for the three missing tigers, Dao Nua, Facram 3, and Happy 2, in April 2015.
The temple’s longtime veterinarian, Somchai Visasmongkolchai, had resigned, reported their disappearance to police, and handed over the ID microchips that he said had been cut out of the tigers. Investigators determined that the animals indeed had vanished, and they found the carcass of another tiger in a freezer. The wildlife department then announced that it would confiscate all of the temple’s tigers.
Since then, the abbot has fought, in the courts and on the ground, to keep possession of them. He sued the wildlife department, unsuccessfully, for the cost of caring for tigers the monastery was never supposed to have bred—to the tune of about $4.1 million. He’s barred the temple's gates several times when federal teams have arrived to take the tigers, Adisorn said.
When the wildlife department removed the six Asian bears last year, the abbot summoned a small hoard of monks and local people to block the temple gates. Officials were forced to call in hundreds of police and military—and the bears ultimately had to be hoisted over the fence with a crane.
A similar melee erupted when officials removed hornbills and other endangered birds from the facility. In a video that appeared on Thai TV, the abbot is seen smashing a wooden cage full of red-whiskered bulbuls. Some escaped and one is shown sitting on the ground, seemingly disoriented from its ordeal.
Adisorn says the wildlife department has gone to great lengths to negotiate with the abbot, but he has not cooperated, and removing the cats ultimately required a court order.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. As Four Paws veterinarian Amir Khalil said, “This Tiger Temple story is still unfolding.”
Sharon Guynup writes about wildlife and environmental issues and is co-author of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat. She is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Follow her on Twitter.