National Geographic News
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.
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