Too much gold in tigers for monks to stay out of the business
KANCHANABURI, Thailand––The notorious “Tiger Temple” in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, nominally closed when wildlife authorities impounded 147 tigers in May 2016, has reportedly been reincarnated as the soon-to-open Golden Tiger Zoo, with 24 tigers acquired from the Mali Salika Tiger Zoo in Nakhon Nayok, just northeast of Bangkok, the Thai capital city.
Said to be closing, the Mali Salika Tiger Zoo is identified by Thai media as a zoo in name only, actually operating as a tiger breeding compound, never open to the public.
The Tiger Temple Co. Ltd., as it was formally known, was run by the quasi-Buddhist monks of the Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno.
Funded land purchases in Europe
While the enterprise operated under the cover of religion, and claimed to have a charitable mission, Soochaphong Boonserm, identified as “a lawyer who had done pro bono work for the temple,” told media in 2016 that the Tiger Temple had been profitable enough to enable chief abbot Phra Ajarn Chan to buy land in Germany and the Czech Republic, supposedly as future temple sites, but registered in his own name.
“Attempts to bring the former Tiger Temple abbot to justice following the 2016 raid sputtered out,” wrote staff reporter Asaree Thaitrakulpanich of the online news portal Khao Sod English.com on February 7, 2018.
Meanwhile, Asaree Thaitrakulpanich said, “The company changed its name from Tiger Temple Co. Ltd to Golden Tiger (Thailand) Co. Ltd in February last year.”
“It will be legal”
“The zoo they are opening won’t be inside the temple, but on an eight-acre plot next to it,” Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation deputy director general Adisorn Noochdamrong told Asaree Thaitrakulpanich. “It will be legal, because our department can control it by law directly. They are registered as a zoo now, not just having animals in the temple like before.”
The Tiger Temple had apparently begun the process of re-registering as a zoo before the May 2016 closure, which was led by Adisorn Noochdamrong.
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 evolved.
Dead cubs in freezer
In May 2016, however, the Department of National Parks personnel were reportedly reinforced by more than 300 police and soldiers.
Two days into the impoundment operation, the team “discovered dozens of dead cubs inside a freezer,” summarized Agence France-Presse.
Some of the cubs, apparently killed at one or two days of age, were found to have been dead for at least five years.
Hungry animals left on site
The tigers and other officially endangered or threatened wildlife were removed from the site in May 2016, but more than 100 other animals remained, including cattle, buffalo, deer, boar, peacocks and jungle fowl.
“Some tourists bring them vegetables, bananas and hay as donations,” said temple worker Chamnarn Yothee.
Asaree Thaitrakulpanich indicated, however, that the animals left on site were “looking very thin.”
The Golden Tiger Zoo will have significantly more competition than did the Tiger Temple. Wildlife Friends founder Edwin Wiek, who led the 13-year campaign to close the Tiger Temple, told Asaree Thaitrakulpanich that eight new tiger-focused tourist attractions have opened in Thailand since the closure.
Altogether, about 50 facilities in Thailand exhibit tigers, according to Wiek, while the number of captive tigers on display has risen from about 600 as of 2007 to more than 1,500.
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.
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.
Prophesied the reincarnation
Gunyup prophesied the reincarnation of the Tiger Temple in a February 23, 2017 National Geographic report describing “a flurry of construction” underway at the site.
“Although the Tiger Temple isn’t legally connected to this venture,” Gunyup said, “the monks advertise the ‘New Home for Tigers Project’ on their website as “in process.” The cost of the 10-acre zoo complex is estimated at $3.4 million.
“In anticipation of the zoo’s completion and the arrival of tigers,” Gunyup added, “a high-volume Thai travel company, Thailand Tourist Center, is taking deposits for tours, including for a $300 ‘breakfast with monks and tigers’ that includes bottle-feeding cubs.”
What became of the 147 impounded tigers?
The 147 tigers impounded from the Tiger Temple were transported to government wildlife centers, where they remain.
The Austria-based international wildlife charity Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) “Between December 2016 and March 2017 set up a training program” for 40 Thai government veterinarians, “and examined approximately 165 big cats and other wild animals, including tigers from the infamous Tiger Temple,” according to the Vier Pfoten web site.
Gunyup said Vier Pfoten had also offered to help build a sanctuary for the tigers, but the Vier Pfoten web site makes no mention of the offer or such a project.