Tigers impounded, abbot on the run, but tourist trap has survived raids before
KANCHANABURI, Thailand––Thai authorities, assisted by personnel from the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand, on May 30, 2016 began impounding the 137 tigers kept by erstwhile Buddhist monks at the internationally notorious Tiger Temple.
The monks-turned-tiger-keepers initially turned the impoundment team away, as they had on several previous occasions during the many years that the Tiger Temple case has evolved.
This time, though, the Department of National Parks personnel leading the confiscation were reportedly reinforced by more than 300 police and soldiers.
That the raid was impending, and even when it was to occur, were disclosed by Pityarch Congcharden of the Bangkok Post on May 29, 2016.
This was a week after Bangkok Post reporters Chaiyot Yongchardenchai and Dane Halpin exposed how Thai officials had for a year done little or nothing in response to receipt of extensive documentation of abuses at the Tiger Temple from Soochaphong Boonserm, identified as “a lawyer who had done pro bono work for the temple” since 2008.
Land in Europe
As well as confirming longstanding rumors that the Tiger Temple was engaged in wildlife trafficking, Soochaphong Boonserm “uncovered evidence that the Tiger Temple had transferred money to purchase plots of land in Germany and the Czech Republic, purportedly to build new temples. But both land plots were registered in [Tiger Temple chief abbot] Phra Ajarn Chan’s name,” Chaiyot Yongchardenchai and Dane Halpin reported.
Seven tigers were trucked out of the Tiger Temple on the evening of May 30, and 33 more the next day.
On previous occasions animals have been removed from the temple, only to be returned after the Tiger Temple obtained court injunctions against the confiscations.
This time, though, the impoundment may be permanent.
“Move ’em out!”
“Veterinary teams from the Department of National Parks are moving out the last 30 remaining tigers from the temple,” Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand founder Edwin Wiek reported on June 2, 2016 via the Asian Animal Protection Network.
“Our team of vets from WFFT are onsite to monitor the moves, as requested by the Department of National Parks,” Wiek added.
“It seems that about 15-20 tiger cubs of very young age have gone missing since last week,” Wiek said. “These cubs were still used for the ‘bottle feeding project’ for tourists, but are right now nowhere to be found onsite.
Tiger parts & tourist selfies
“Yesterday a driver for abbot Phra Vissuthisaradhera,” also known as known as Phra Ajarn Chan, “accompanied by a friend and the secretary for the abbot, tried to flee the temple with 1,300 items made from tiger bones and teeth, and two skins,” Wiek continued. “The driver was arrested; the monk (the secretary) was not.”
In addition to the initial delay, “There was confusion in the early hours of the raid,” USA Today summarized, because for more than four hours “visitors continued to show up for photo ops with the big cats.”
Said Ramsey, “Tourists were still coming in and seeing the tigers, sitting down and taking selfies.”
Some Tiger Temple monks remained at the scene, watching the impoundments, some of whom reportedly helped to recapture a tiger who briefly escaped.
“The tiger disappeared into the dark and a search party was dispatched,” recounted the Bangkok Post. “After an hour it was seen chasing a baby boar near the entrance of the temple. A veterinarian shot the animal with a sedative and it was caged.”
“Dozens of dead cubs”
Two days into the impoundment operation, the team “discovered dozens of dead cubs inside a freezer,” summarized Agence France-Presse.
“We found 40 tiger cubs,” confirmed police colonel Bandith Meungsukhum. “They were aged about one or two days when they died, but we don’t quite know yet how long they have been dead.”
Some were later found to have been dead for at least five years.
Echoes of U.S. case
The find was reminiscent of the April 2003 discovery of the remains of 88 dead tigers, mostly cubs, at John Weinhart’s Tiger Rescue sanctuary in San Bernardino County, California, and at the home Weinhart shared with wife Marla Smith in Riverside County.
Thirty-nine tigers were found alive.
Like the Tiger Temple aborts, Weinhart and Smith were suspected of having used the sanctuary as cover for illegally breeding and selling tiger cubs.
Weinhart was in February 2005 convicted of cruelty to animals and child endangerment, but he was apparently never charged with any offense related to animal trafficking.
Where is the abbot?
“The abbot is not at the temple,” Wiek said in his June 2, 2016 summary of the impoundment operation. “Rumors that the abbot has left the country have not been confirmed by immigration police. There seems to be fear, however, that he might want to fly to Germany, as he supposedly bought land there last year.”
“The coalition of Thai nongovernmental involved in the case will meet on Tuesday, June 7,” added Wiek, “to discuss future plans for the wellbeing of the confiscated tigers and to draft a (possible) petition to curb the trade in tiger parts from tiger farms in Thailand. All [involved] Thai nongovernmental organizations have been promised access to the tigers that have been moved and authorities have said they will accept help from outside.”
The Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand “has been fighting to get the Tiger Temple closed down since 2003,” Wiek recounted, “after we found that the first four tigers there were illegally bought from a tiger farm owned by a then-member of parliament. We applaud the latest moves by authorities,” Wiek finished, “and will keep on pushing for the enforcement of the wildlife protection law to the maximum extent. The abbot and his assistants need to be brought to justice, to court.”
Abbot Phra Ajarn Chan, also known as Phra Vissuthisaradhera, had three times charged Wiek “in civil and criminal court for slander,” Wiek finished, “as I told the Thai media that he was involved in illegal wildlife trade in 2006-2007 and 2010. The abbot is now finally facing the music. It will be very hard for him this time to get out of this, as the evidence is so strong and shown to the world.”
“A cat has only nine lives”
But, wrote Mark Twain in Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), “One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.”
Phra Ajarn Chan is nothing if not an accomplished liar.
“Thailand’s Tiger Temple saga isn’t over yet,” cautioned USA Today, in a June 3, 2016 report compiled largely from the observations of Bangkok-based journalist Adam Ramsey.
“International and local nongovernmental organizations have been calling out this Tiger Temple for citations of animal abuse, of illegal trafficking, illegal selling for years,” Ramsey said. “So it’s actually more of a question of, why did it take so long?”
More than 15 years of allegations that the Tiger Temple had covered for breeding tigers and trafficking in tiger 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.
Foxcroft did research for her University of Queensland master’s degree thesis at the temple, beginning in April 2007. Foxcroft published her allegations simultaneously with the publication of a first-hand investigation of the Tiger Temple by National Geographic correspondent Sharon Gunyup and photographer Steve Winter.
Gunyup and Winter are coauthors of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat, published by National Geographic Press in 2013. They said they had been preparing a follow-up when the May/June 2016 confiscations started.
2015 bust thwarted
The Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation had believed 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 then denied wildlife officials access to the temple. That brought an April 2015 standoff when officials backed by soldiers tried to remove several moon bears, who were ostensibly kept without proper permits.
The bears were eventually impounded, but the Tiger Temple won an official apology from the Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation for allegedly exercising heavy-handed law enforcement.
Founded in 1994, first acquiring tigers in 1999, the Tiger Temple rapidly became a major tourist draw both for the surrounding community and for Thailand as a whole.
Wiek in particular was congratulated by leaders of other Asian animal protection organizations for persisting and eventually prevailed, apparently, in his long effort to close the Tiger Temple.
Praise for Wiek
“Brilliant job, Edwin,” posted Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson, “under difficult circumstances considering the politics involved – really well done!”
Commented Hong Kong veterinarian Kati Loeffler, who has worked with organizations throughout Southeast Asia, “I sincerely hope that the news brings some awareness to the minds of international tourists on what is behind these horrendous wildlife-interaction tourist attractions, and that just because a business is run by a temple does not mean that it is legal or humane.”
Said Pamela Gale Malhotra of the Save Animals Initiative Sanctuary Trust in India, “There may still be a real need for follow-up here to make sure that those involved in this disgusting situation are treated like any other criminal and not let off because they wear saffron robes––these are obviously not Buddhist monks but murderers and criminals in monks’ clothing.”