Image: Dario Pignatelli/Getty Images
Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, or Tiger Temple to English-speakers, was a Buddhist Temple in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province. It was founded in 1994 as a forest temple and sanctuary for wild animals and the original eight tigers on the grounds were rescues sent to the temple. Entry fees are 600 baht per person with a private session costing 1,000 baht to bathe, and play with the tigers like you would a domesticated cat. The tigers are given huge grounds to play in and exercise and are given ample food throughout the day. Each time you pay to play with these animals you contribute in some way to their conservation. After all, the number of tigers has increased from eight to 137 since its inception. Sounds pretty legit right?
Wrong. Maybe, we don’t know for sure yet. News recently broke about the 40 tiger cub corpses that were recovered from a freezer in the temple. Along with the cubs, authorities also found a body of a bearcat, and a number of organs belonging to other wildlife. Many have claimed that the tiger cubs were killed to be sold but a report by BBC reveals that a number of the tiger cub bodies have been there for over five years. Confusing yes? Well, this is the explanation by the Tiger Temple representatives:
This does not explain the critically endangered bearcat or the other internal organs of other animals found in the freezer. The temple has also released an extensive statement covering all their bases, explaining the alleged separation of cubs from their mothers, the apparent mortality rate of tiger cubs, while denying that fact that they’ve forced tigers to mate. What is the real story? And why have activists lobbied against the temple for so long?
The Tiger Temple's new 'meditation center' is part of an expansion that will allow them to house even more tigers - 500 to be exact. Image: Steve Martin
Four male and four female tigers arrived at the monastery in 1999 and 2000. The temple opened its doors to the public in 1999 and was advertised in the media as a utopia where monks and tigers lived in harmony. In 2001, the Thai Forestry Department and Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Convservation (DNP) became aware that the temple was holding endangered tigers without permits. The temple was instructed not to breed, nor trade the animals. Both requests were apparently ignored. Allegations would continue to surface throughout the years about abuse, arrivals and disappearances of tigers, and suspected trading.
The report by CWI also states that tigers are kept in cells for up to 20 hours a day.
The first undercover investigation was done by Care for the Wild International (CWI) which alleged that the temple had been exchanging tigers with a tiger farm in Laos. These farms then fuel the black market of illegal animal parts such as tiger bones and penises which are used for traditional Chinese medicine. Older male tigers are swapped for females, and are given the same name. New Zealander Fiona Patchett, a volunteer from 2005 to 2006 witnessed an exchange of a tiger cub on the grounds but didn’t realize it was illegal. She also added that six to seven tigers disappeared without explanation.
The monks denied these allegations and maintain that their acts have been done in the name of conservation and that mature tigers are released into the wild. Experts dispute this claim, as “No tiger raised in captivity has ever been successfully reintroduced into the wild,” said Mahendra Shrestha, director of the Washington, D.C. –based Save the Tiger Fund. “It gives the complete wrong picture of tiger conservation.” “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.
The report failed to halt the operations and it wasn’t till 2014 that the temple would raise controversy again. Three adult male tigers disappeared from the temple; they were micro-chipped and registered with DNP. This controversy was followed by an investigative report by conservationist group Cee4life that details how these tigers were taken and killed at the direction of the Abbot. The report spans the years 1999 – 2015 and includes CCTV footage, audio recordings, Facebook messages, the origins of the original tigers, evidence of cross-border trading to the farm in Laos, evidence of the disappearances of the original tigers, and it uncovers the fact that the original eight tigers weren’t rescued, they were caught in the wild.
At the time of the report, 150 tigers were recorded inside the temple. The figure that Cee4life has confirmed between 2008 and 2015 is 281. Natural death cannot account for 131 tigers that are missing as tigers kept in captivity live an average 16 – 26 years.
Caretakers punching the tiger documented by Cee4life. Image: Cee4life
In Section 3 of the report, Cee4life documents the violations to the animal’s welfare including malnutrition, inability to access water, overcrowded cement cells, improper healthcare, and physical abuse by staff. There is photographic evidence of the tigers being beaten with sticks and punched in the report.
It is a lucrative business they are running and business is good. The temple officials report earnings of USD3 million a year in ticket revenue, but government officials say the figure is actually USD5.7 million. This is not counting the sizeable donations the temple receives.
The confiscated items. Image: Piyarach Chongcharoen
It seems that their reign is nearly at an end as it was reported on 2 June that authorities have intercepted a monk and two other men in a lorry leaving the temple and have confiscated two full-length tiger skins, about 700 amulets made from tiger parts, and 10 tiger fangs, Teunchai Noochdumrong, director of of the Wildlife Conservation Office, told the BBC.
Tigers are carried out in stretchers after being anesthetised. Image: AFP
This is just the beginning of the controversy and we’ll be waiting to see if justice and truth will prevail. 40 tigers have been rescued in the first two days of the operation and 1,000 personnel are involved. NGOs and authorities are now feeding the tigers in the temple as the monks have refused to feed the animals. The tigers are being transferred to two governmental breeding centres in Thailand’s Ratchaburi Province.