BANGKOK, Thailand––The notorious “Tiger Temple” at Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, may be near permanent closure, with the planned transfer of all 146 resident tigers to government breeding centers, Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation director general Nipon Chotiban on April 6, 2015 told media.
A travesty of the Buddhist temple sanctuary tradition, the “Tiger Temple” has attracted international protest almost since it opened in 1999, but has survived as a lucrative and popular tourist attraction, where visitors have been allowed to pet, pose for photos with, and at times even ride tigers. The “Tiger Temple” management has claimed that the tigers are pacified by Buddhist ritual; critics have alleged, but not managed to prove in court, that the tigers have been drugged.
Monks hold off authorities
Nipon Chotiban moved to confiscate the tigers after about 200 “Tiger Temple monks, novices, local residents, and reportedly more than 600 local government officials interfered for more than 24 hours with a Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation attempt to relocate six Asian black bears from the temple to a newly opened government breeding center in Chon Buri.
While the 146 tigers are to be transported immediately to the Khaoson and Khao Pratabchang wildlife breeding centers in Ratchaburi, their ultimate disposition “will depend on the species,” Nipon Chotiban said. “Most of the tigers at Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua are Bengal tigers, not local breeds,” he explained, “so we must take care of them till they die.”
Confirmed an April 6, 2015 Facebook posting from the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand, in Bangkok, “In the afternoon today we received a phone call from the office of the director general of the Department of National Parks [Nipon Chotiban] with the news that they have decided to move all tigers out of the tiger temple after the Thai New Year. We are very happy to hear this news and will follow up closely.”
Bears removed by crane
The allegedly illegally held Asiatic black bears––“moon bears”––were on April 4, 2015 sedated and removed from their dens at the “Tiger Temple” by crane, the Bangkok Post and The Nation reported.
The “Tiger Temple” monks and their allies had the previous day repelled a team of about 70 military officers, police, veterinarians, and representatives of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation, according to Piyarach Chongcaroen of the Bangkok Post, but the government officials returned with a delegation of more than 400.
“Somsak Phupetch, director of DNP’s wildlife crime suppression unit, said monks and staff at the temple were uncooperative when the team visited the temple to investigate the case of three missing tigers,” wrote Piyarach Chongcaroen. “That was when they discovered the black bears. Somsak said the temple failed to show official documentation for the bears and staff refused to unlock the cages that housed them. The team had to use cutting tools to seize the animals after shooting them with anesthetic darts. Phra Vissuthisaradhera, the abbot, then led about 100 monks, staff and disciples to block the main gate to prevent the officials’ truck carrying the bears from leaving. They placed metal barricades across the gate and sat on the ground, demanding that the officials return the bears before leaving the premises.”
The April 2015 crackdown on the “Tiger Temple” came just seven weeks after the facility was whitewashed by Thai officials who claimed they found no mistreatment of animals there.
Summarized Associated Press, “About 50 officials from the wildlife department and local religious affairs office, along with soldiers, made a three-hour inspection of the Luangtamahabua Buddhist temple compound. The so-called ‘Tiger Temple,’ which is virtually a petting zoo for visitors willing to muster up some courage, had been accused of drugging the creatures to keep them tame, allegations that the monks and the veterinarian who takes care of the animals have denied.
“Temples are traditional sanctuaries for stray dogs,” Associated Press noted, “but the presence of the tigers raised eyebrows, especially when photos showed monks riding the animals and engaging in other horseplay with them. Buddhist monks are supposed to act soberly and modestly in all aspects of their lives. They still come out at noon and play with the animals in what has come to be a show for visitors.”
Birds & foxes
The February 12, 2015 inspection came ten days after several dozen birds of protected species were seized from the “Tiger Temple” by forestry officials, soldiers and police, who “executed a search warrant after receiving complaints from tourists that the place had large numbers of protected wild animals and were trading tigers illegally,” reported Piyarach Chongcaroen. The team “discovered several species of protected birds––including hornbills and red-whiskered bulbuls––locked in cages. They also found two foxes in cages in front of the temple,” Piyarach Chongcaroen said.
“But their survey was cut short by abbot Phra Vissuthisaradhera, forcing the team to return [a day later] with a search warrant. Monks and staff at the temple remained uncooperative, refusing to unlock cages that housed the wild birds. The team had to use cutting tools to remove the birds. They also found the foxes had gone missing. Athipat Srimanee, the temple caretaker, claimed he did not know how and when the foxes disappeared.”
Elaborated Wildlife Friends in an account posted to Facebook, “After several days DNP and police did not charge anyone with illegal possession, booking the illegal wild animals as ‘wildlife without owner.’ Instead of enforcing the law, the abbot [Phra Vissuthisaradhera] was let off as a religious person. This loophole in the law is often used when illegal wildlife is kept or traded by monks, politicians or influential people. It seemed the case was closed,” until in April the situation reignited.
Located about two hours by tourist bus from Bangkok, the Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery, as the “Tiger Temple” is formally called, claims to have began with “a sick baby tiger, orphaned by poachers,” and to have “expanded to house other tiger orphans.”
The “Tiger Temple” in 2010 sued Wildlife Friends founder Edwin Wiek and the Bangkok Post after the British charity Care for the Wild International in 2009 described on the CFW web site “evidence of tigers being regularly beaten, having urine sprayed into their faces, being forced to sit in direct sunshine for hours on end, and being kept in poor conditions with inadequate feeding,” plus “evidence of illegal trade and breeding of tigers at the temple.”
Care for the Wild noted that, “Tigers are reported to be extremely lethargic during photo sessions, leading to concerns they may be drugged.”
“Crooks in yellow robes”
Wiek was sued as the purported source of the information, said to have been collected from 2005 to 2008. The Bangkok Post was sued for reporting the Care For The Wild findings.
“In the end,” said Wiek, “the civil court did not accept the case, as they felt our ‘slanderous accusations’ were in fact sustained with evidence, and that as a charity involved in wildlife conservation and animal welfare, we had not just had the right but even a duty to report on animal abuse when we found it. Further,” Wiek said, “the court had the opinion that a temple is a public place of worship, not a business, so could not suffer financially from bad press.”
Wiek pledged then to “continue the fight against these crooks in yellow robes.”
The Thai Department of National Parks, Plants and Wildlife had as far back as 2002 declared that the “Tiger Temple” was operating illegally, but left the tigers on the premises and allowed the temple to remain open to visitors “because there was nowhere else for the tigers to go,” said Care for the Wild.
The beginning of the end for the “Tiger Temple” may have come in August 2013 when 19-year-old British university student Isabelle Brennan suffered severe injuries while posing for photos with a tiger when a second tiger pounced and bit her. “Tiger Temple” keepers interrupted the attack, while her sister Georgie Brennan, 21, dragged her to safety.
Attacks at Thai tiger exhibition facilities were nothing new, and usually have had little consequence for anyone other than the victims. A New Zealand woman was hospitalized for weeks in 2009 after petting a tiger’s head at the at Khumsu Chiang Mai Tiger Centre in northern Thailand, and in 2011 a Thai woman suffered severe head and arm injuries after a tiger mauled her at the Million Years Stone Park in Pattaya. Fourteen months after Isabelle Brennan was mauled, Australian visitor Paul Goudie, 49, was mauled at the Tiger Kingdom park in Phuket, opened in August 2013.
But liability concerns prompted by the Isabelle Brennan attack may have prompted the British/Swiss firm Start The Adventure Travel to begin a review of the tourism adventures it offers to 2.5 million students and other young people per year.
STA Travel in May 2014 quit booking visits to the “Tiger Temple,” facilities offering elephant rides, and even the SeaWorld oceanariums in Orlando and San Diego. STA Travel packaged tours had been a major source of “Tiger Temple” visitors and revenue.
Liability, however, was not mentioned in the STA Travel announcement, and whether Isabelle Brennan was a STA Travel customer is unknown.
“The company, which has a turnover of more than £800m a year, is reviewing all its provision involving contact with animals to ensure they meet what it believes are the ethical standards demanded by its customers, some of whom had begun questioning current offers,” reported James Meikle of The Guardian.