Australian Group Accuses Tiger Temple Of Supplying Black Market

Video highlights from Tiger On The Run

New report from a Australian nonprofit organisation alleges that monks in Thailand have been speed breeding big cats for the illegal market.

The temple, formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, doubles as an attraction for visitors who want hands-on contact with some of its 147 captive tigers about three hours West of Bangkok.

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.

Controversy has long swirled around the temple. Former workers and animal welfare advocates have alleged that the tigers have been abused and exploited: beaten, fed poorly, in need of veterinary care, and housed in small concrete cages with little opportunity for exercise or time outdoors. The monks have denied this.

Tigers at Thailand’s famed Tiger Temple live in cramped concrete enclosures. A new report links the monastery, which houses 147 tigers, to the black market tiger trade {image: Sharon Guynup]

To animal welfare advocates, the allegations have made the temple’s tigers a symbol of the need to protect an animal that is increasingly under threat in the wild. A century ago, more than 100,000 of the majestic cats roamed across 30 Asian nations. Today, just 3,200 tigers hang on, precariously, in 11 countries.

Now there are new allegations against the temple: that it has been involved in the illegal trade of tigers.

Last month, photographer Steve Winter and I went to the temple to look into an incident that occurred just over a year ago. According to our sources, in late December 2014, three adult male tigers vanished from the temple: seven-year-old Dao Nua, three-year-old Facram, and Happy, who was five.

The abbot declined to be interviewed. When I ask Jakkrit where those tigers went, he glances around. “We still have our tigers here,” he says. “They still all completely stay in the Tiger Temple.”

All three tigers had been microchipped and registered with the government, according to the temple’s longtime veterinarian, Somchai Visasmongkolchai. It’s a legal requirement in Thailand for captive endangered animals.

But in February 2015 Somchai resigned and went to the authorities. He handed over the microchips, which, according to Adisorn Nuchdumrong, deputy director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, had been cut out of the tigers.

Then in April, government authorities went to the temple. They confirmed that the tigers were missing. They also discovered that 13 tigers lacked microchips and found the carcass of a tiger in a freezer.

Now an Australian nonprofit, Cee4life (Conservation and Environmental Education for Life) says it has new information indicating that tigers have been taken illegally to and from the temple since at least 2004. The group’s “Tiger Temple Report” was given simultaneously to Thai officials and National Geographic last month and was released publicly this week.

Phra Acham Phoosit (Chan) Kanthitharo, the abbot of the Tiger Temple, plays with two tiger cubs. The new report suggests that the monastery is “speed breeding” tigers [Image: Steve Winter, National Geographic]

It includes what the group says are veterinary records from 1999 and 2000 indicating that four of the temple’s original tigers were “wild caught” and a 2004 document stating that a female tiger named Nanfa had been “imported from Laos.” A 2005 contract signed by the temple’s abbot and provided to National Geographic details the swap of a male from the temple with a female from a commercial tiger-breeding operation in Laos. An audiotape acquired from an unnamed temple adviser records a conversation between the abbot and Somchai about the three missing tigers.

Cross-border commerce in live tigers—or their skins, bones, or other parts—violates both Thai law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates wildlife trade under a treaty signed by 182 nations, including Thailand.

Nothing has come to light about the fate of the missing tigers, and no one has been charged or prosecuted. But the government intends to relocate the tigers from the temple to state wildlife facilities soon.


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