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.
Inside an industrial-size freezer they found the bodies of 40 frozen tiger cubs.
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.
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