This week Thailand’s famous Tiger Temple tourist attraction is more embattled than ever.
Adisorn Nuchdumrong, deputy director of Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation, said his agency has now ﬁled eight complaints with local police against the temple and its abbot. Charges include illegal possession of endangered wildlife and wildlife trafficking.
In addition, Adisorn said, if the temple is definitively linked to wildlife trafficking, the zoo license granted to the Tiger Temple Company Ltd. in April could be revoked. If the zoo keeps the license, the company could legally buy back some of the confiscated tigers.
Last week when wildlife department officers were seizing the monastery’s 137 tigers, they discovered 60 frozen and bottled tiger cub carcasses and pelts and a cache of other endangered species parts and products. Tiger skins were found inside the abbot’s private residence during the operation, Adisorn said.
About 10 female tigers taken from the temple were lactating, according to Suppakorn Patumrattanathan, who heads the wildlife department’s health division. But no live cubs were found among the 137 tigers that were removed.
On Tuesday, a police raid on a house some 30 miles from the temple found four more tigers within a fenced compound. In a statement, police Colonel Montri Pancharoen said, “We believe it was used by the Tiger Temple to hold live tigers before slaughtering them for their skins, meat and bones to be exported outside the country, or sent to restaurants in Thailand that serve tiger meat to tour groups.” Two caretakers at the house were taken into custody. Authorities seized the property and are searching for the owner. Exporting tigers or their parts is illegal.
Suppakorn said that blood samples from the four tigers are being analyzed to determine whether they’re related to the monastery’s tigers, a process that will take at least two weeks.
Yesterday in a press conference the temple offered its first public response to these events. Siri Wangbunkerd, a temple follower and former politician, spoke to the media. "The abbot knew nothing about the products from tigers or the remains of tiger cubs,” he said. “These products were secretly produced by temple personnel who smuggled in the remains of dead tigers behind the abbot's back."
In a press release, the temple accused the wildlife department of “bullying” and “slandering” its reputation for alleging that tiger carcasses found on the premises were for sale. The temple also asserted that the wildlife department had violated the “rule of law” by obtaining a search warrant and taking the tigers.
But the monastery’s abbot, Phra Acham Phoosit (Chan) Kanthitharo, who hadn’t been seen in public since before the tigers were moved to government wildlife facilities, didn’t make a promised statement. According to The Nation newspaper, he had suffered an acute heart attack, but he was seen later in a golf cart inside temple grounds, waving to reporters.
A Zoning Problem?
The Tiger Temple Company’s zoo license may also be in jeopardy because the 10-acre (four-hectare) site of the planned zoo, adjacent to the existing temple complex, may be zoned only for agriculture or forest—not for construction or business purposes.
In addition, the temple itself may have violated a land-use agreement by expanding into state-owned forest, according to Thai PBS and other outlets. The plot, granted to the monastery by the Agricultural Land Reform Office, is for religious use only.
An inspection on Sunday by the land office found that the temple complex appears to extend about 370 acres (150 hectares) beyond land it was given by the state and contains non-religious multistoried commercial buildings. If a current inquiry proves this to be true, the temple could be closed or relocated to another site because it illegally encroached on forest land.
As part of a widening probe into wildlife trafficking in the country, police will inspect 30 zoos for illegal activity, according to the Bangkok Post.
“The scandal unfolding at the Tiger Temple is just the tip of the iceberg and a symptom of a wider malaise across Southeast Asia and China,” says Debbie Banks, a tiger expert with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
Meanwhile at the government facilities where the temple’s former tigers are being held, keepers are evaluating their health and slowly weaning them from their temple diet of boiled chicken onto raw red meat, which provides proper nutrition.
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 public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Follow her on Twitter.