Exposed by Australian charity & National Geographic
BANGKOK, Thailand––More than 15 years of allegations that the renowned Tiger Temple is engaged in breeding and trafficking tigers for body parts gained weight with the January 21, 2016 release of a detailed investigative report and collection of documents from the Australian wildlife charity Cee4Life, founded by Sybelle Foxcroft, who did research for her University of Queensland master’s degree thesis at the temple, beginning in April 2007.
“Really solid evidence”
The Cee4Life allegations were published at http://www.cee4life.org/tiger-temple-report/ simultaneously with the publication of a first-hand investigation of the Tiger Temple and Foxcroft’s claims by National Geographic correspondent Sharon Gunyup and photographer Steve Winter.
Guynup and Winter are coauthors of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat, published by National Geographic Press in 2013.
“This is the first really solid evidence! Check it out,” Gunyup told ANIMALS 24-7.
Temple won 2015 confrontation
The Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation thought it finally had strong enough documentation to close the Tiger Temple and confiscate the then-146 resident tigers in February 2015, after former Tiger Temple veterinarian Somchai Wisetmongkolchai alleged in December 2014 that the temple had illegally sold protected species.
But abbot Phra Vissuthisaradhera denied wildlife officials access to the temple, directing resistance culminating in an April 2015 standoff when officials backed by soldiers tried to remove several moon bears, who were ostensibly kept without proper permits. More than 100 monks and staff blocked government trucks, leaving the bears in transport cages for hours until they could be lifted over a temple wall by crane.
Temple won apology, too
Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation director general Nipon Chotiban on April 24, 2015 delegated deputy director general Adisorn Nuchdamrong to apologize to the Tiger Temple for supposedly exercising heavy-handed law enforcement.
“It’s been 11 months since Somchai came forward with microchip evidence, and there has been no public action in the case,” Gunyup wrote.
The Tiger Temple appears to be operating as if it is above the law because, since it first housed a tiger in 1999, it has become a major economic engine not only for the surrounding community, but for Thai international tourism.
Located in Kanchanaburi, about three hours’ drive northwest of Bangkok, “The temple, formally known as Wat Pa Luang ta Bua Yannasampanno, doubles as an attraction for visitors who want hands-on contact with some of its 147 captive tigers,” wrote Gunyup. “Busloads of tourists come to pet and feed cubs, play with tigers, walk them on leashes, and take selfies with a tiger’s head in their lap. The enterprise is estimated to generate income equivalent to three million dollars a year.
$170 million expansion
“This big-cat meditation center is part of the monastery’s World Buddhist Sanctuary,” Gunyup added, which is “a nearly $170 million project to expand the temple’s tiger enterprise. Former Kanchanburi police colonel Supitpong Pakjarung, now vice president of the foundation,” ensuring close links to local law enforcement, “told me that a new safari-style tiger sanctuary is planned,” where there is to be “hands-on contact with tigers,” according to another of Gunyup’s sources, “and the cats will be allowed to breed freely.
“The first phase of this project will accommodate 500 tigers,” Gunyup said. “In December an application was submitted for a zoo license,” which will be issued by the Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation if the allegations raised by Cee4Life and other critics are insufficient to slow the Tiger Temple’s momentum.
The charge that the Tiger Temple is engaged in breeding and trafficking tigers for body parts amounts to charging that it is operating in violation of both Thai law and a 2007 resolution by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an arm of the United Nations, that “Tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.”
Twice as many tigers on farms as in wild
Despite the CITES resolution, Gunyup wrote, “More than 5,000 tigers are held on farms in China. Thailand ranks second, with about 950. Other operations are scattered across Laos and Vietnam,” according to Environmental Investigation Agency investigator Debbie Banks.
Added Gunyup, “How many tiger farms are run as tourist attractions, like the Tiger Temple, but are really fronts for trading tigers, dead or alive, is unknown.”
Foxcroft saw pattern
Foxcroft, while doing her master’s degree research at the Tiger Temple, “noted a pattern: Female tigers disappeared, but males—which typically behave better with the tourists—remained,” Gunyup summarized. “In 2007 the temple had 18 tigers. By 2010 the population had swelled to 70-plus,” then more than doubled in only five years.
But altogether, according to Foxcroft, the Tiger Temple housed 281 tigers between 1999 and 2015. That leaves 134 one-time resident tigers who are no longer there, a much greater number than could be expected to have died, assuming a normal mortality rate.
“It seems like what the monks do is get rid of some tigers and then either bring in replacements for them—or rename other tigers to cover it up,” former Tiger Temple volunteer Sylwia Domaradzka told Gunyup.
The contentions of Foxcroft and Domaradzka were supported by Ash Waldron, identified by Gunyup as “an Englishman who stumbled into a job at the Tiger Temple while traveling through Asia in 2009.
Tiger farm in Laos
Waldron told Gunyup that when he asked where a vanished litter of newborn tigers, a Thai staff member said, “They’re going to a tiger farm in Laos.”
Gunyup also obtained supporting testimony from a man named Gary Agnew, whom she identified as “a Canadian who has served on the board of the Calgary Zoo and has taken classes on caring for captive tigers. He’s spent extended time at the tiger temple every year for a decade,” Gunyup said, as “an insider who advises the monks on animal welfare.”
But Agnew alleged that three missing tigers were stolen by Tiger Temple staff, who apparently sold them on the black market. Agnew said he had taken his evidence to the Kanchanburi police, who had apparently done nothing.
“My biggest fear is that it will be swept under the carpet,” Agnew told Gunyup.
Longtime observers not surprised
Neither the Cee4Life allegations nor those of the former Tiger Temple vet Somchai Wisetmongkolchai have surprised longtime observers.
far back as 2002 the Thai Department of National Parks, Plants and Wildlife 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,” summarized the British animal charity Care for the Wild.
Care for the Wild has since 2005 urged British visitors to Thailand to avoid the Tiger Temple, but British tourists still often post photos of their encounters with tigers at the temple, indicating that they still make up a substantial share of the visitor patronage.