The recent revelations at Thailand’s Tiger Temple were shocking but may mean improvements in animal welfare will follow
Early this month, Thai wildlife authorities investigating a notorious Buddhist temple found 40 dead tiger cubs in a freezer. Authorities suspect the monks intended to sell them on the black market. The cubs were discovered during a court-ordered operation to shut down the temple after officials received complaints that it was trafficking endangered species.
Tourists flocked to the temple for an opportunity to touch and snap a selfie with live big cats, earning the monks nearly $6m a year from ticket sales, according to the New York Times. The temple, Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, is situated west of Bangkok in Kanchanaburi Province, near another of Thailand‘s top tourist attractions, the Bridge over the River Kwai.
Police investigating the temple then found what they believe is a slaughterhouse and tiger holding facility at a home roughly 50 kilometres from Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, which they suspect is part of a larger wildlife smuggling operation involving the Tiger Temple. The following day, police stopped a monk and two men leaving the temple in a truck with two tiger skins, tiger teeth and more than 700 vials containing tiger skin. Tiger parts are sometimes sold on the black market for use in traditional medicine, with tiger bone selling for as much as $353 per kilogram and tiger penis soup costing up to $320 a bowl, according to the New York Times.
“We believe [the home] was used by the Tiger Temple to hold live tigers before slaughtering them for their skins, meat and bones to be exported outside the country, or sent to restaurants in Thailand that serve tiger meat to tour groups,” police Colonel Montri Pancharoen, deputy commander of the police division investigating the temple, told AP.
“The Tiger Temple is just a starting point, or a supplier,” he said. “We have information that the Tiger Temple is not the only place that supplies tigers to illegal smugglers.”
Australian wildlife conservation agency Cee4life claims that 281 tigers have been born at the temple over the years and that natural deaths alone could not account for today’s population. Cee4life has released a report entitled The Illegal International Trade of Tigers and other Protected Species at the Tiger Temple, Thailand.
Sybelle Foxcroft, founder and director of Cee4life, says that the recent controversy at the Tiger Temple has prompted a paradigm shift in animal tourism in Thailand. “A knock-on effect is starting to be seen, and I think what we’re going to see in the future is higher animal welfare standards for any animals that have to be in captivity,” said Foxcroft.
The Bangkok Post has reported that, as part of a larger effort to combat wildlife trafficking in Thailand, police will inspect 30 zoos throughout the country for illegal activity. Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) also said, according to Reuters, that it would inspect the popular Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Chonburi, which drew attention in 2004 after sending at least 100 of its tigers to a zoo in China.
“The recent tiger temple action is the message to other venues to comply with legislation particular for breeding and trade of wildlife,” said Somsak Soonthornnawaphat, head of campaigns at World Animal Protection Thailand. But he added that the DNP’s capacity to monitor animal tourism venues and enforce laws is limited: “In order not to have case similar to the Tiger Temple happening again, we need to increase DNP’s capacities in the short term,” Soonthornnawaphat said. “And in the long term we needs to focus on policies ending the use of wild animals in tourism.
Betty Tsai, director of communications at wildlife trafficking and human slavery NGO Freeland believes that it is the responsibility of tourists to “do their homework” before visiting places that conduct animal tourism, and said they should “vote with their wallets by not going to certain zoos or other venues that mistreat animals”.
For Cee4life’s Foxcroft, it is all about creating an appropriate enclosure for the big cats. “When an animal is in captivity, we must be sure that the enclosures that they live in are representing what their wild environment should be,” she said. “They need plenty of space to move, as a tiger will walk up to 40 kilometres a day.”
Foxcroft added that, when done correctly, ethical animal tourism can be an effective way to educate tourists about tigers, an endangered animal with roughly 4,000 known tigers remaining in the wild, according to WWF estimates. “You can educate people on the plight of the tigers that way, without people taking selfies and laying all over them.”