As an ignorant youngster, I once took a picture with a tiger at a theme park while I was on a trip to Thailand. Yep, I thought it was a cool thing to do. Then, I heard about a Tiger Temple at Kanchanaburi. According to Wikipedia:
Tiger Temple, or Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, is a Theravada Buddhist Temple in western Thailand that was founded in 1994 as a forest temple and sanctuary for wild animals, among them several tigers, the majority of which are Indochinese tigers. The tiger temple is located in the Saiyok district of Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province, not far from the border with Burma, some 38 km (24 mi) northwest of Kanchanaburi along the 323 highway.
By then, I was already aware of the negative impact of keeping wild animals this way, but the mysticism associated with may poorly-educated Thai people’s understanding of Buddhism had led them to believe that the monks at the temple have supernatural powers over the beasts and the temple is only doing good by “taming” wild animals, breeding them in captivity and giving ordinary folks with a few hundred baht to spare a chance to touch these majestic beasts. But what lies behind this apparently noble project? Unknown to those smitten with the mystical and romantic image of the “Tiger Temple”, there is an average of 60 unreported incidents of tourists being mauled by the captive tigers every year!
Based on the Care for the Wild International report, a coalition of 39 conservation groups, including the Humane Society International, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, World Animal Protection, and the World Wide Fund for Nature, penned a letter to the director general of National Parks in Thailand under the name ‘The International Tiger Coalition’. This letter urged the director general to take action against the Tiger Temple over its import and export of 12 tigers with Laos, its lack of connection with accredited conservation breeding programs, and to genetically test the tigers at the Tiger Temple to determine their pedigree and value to tiger conservation programs. It concludes that the Temple does not have the facilities, the skills, the relationships with accredited zoos, or even the desire to manage its tigers in an appropriate fashion. Instead, it is motivated both in display of the tigers to tourists and in its illegal trading of tigers purely by profit.
The authorities decided to take action. Thai officials entered the park with a warrant and seized the animals. News reports at that time predicted that the park in the temple would be shut down and we won’t see Facebook pictures of our friends posing with tigers anymore.
On February 2, 2015, an official investigation of the temple commenced by forest officials. After initially being sent away, they returned the following day with a warrant, policemen, and soldiers, seizing protected wild birds and impounding the tigers on the premises. The head of the Wildlife Crime Suspension office stated the park did not have the proper permits for raising the birds. The tigers were impounded pending further investigation into the tigers’ documentation.
On February 12, 2015, ten days after the start of the investigation, ABC News reported that Thai officials found no evidence of mistreatment of the tigers. In a video press conference posted that same day by The Bankok Post, the director of the regional office of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, Cherdchai Jariyapanya, responded to allegations of illegal wildlife trading, stating that all tigers are healthy and none of them are missing. He also noted that the tigers all have microchips embedded in them and that the department has been informed every time a new cub is born.
The story didn’t end there. A new director is in charge now. Mr Nipon Chotibarn, director-general of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife announced on April 16 that the practices at the Tiger Temple are illegal and the animals would be seized and relocated to more suitable habitat.
Strangely, on 23rd April, wildlife officials turned back on their promise to remove the animals from Kanchanaburi’s troubled “Tiger Temple,” saying they will instead “negotiate” a way for the park to remain. Nares Chomboon, Wildlife Breeding Department director pointed out that he wanted to “avoid conflict”. Furthermore, he noted (at the last minute) that relocating the 150 tigers would take a lot of time. He decided that he and his men would just visit the park, register the animals and let the operation (which charges tourists 600 baht per entry) go on as long as someone would undertake the responsibility in writing to take good care of the tigers.
Naturally, the activists would be disappointed. The cynics predict that when a new director heads the department, there will be another round of accusations, threats and “negotiations”. What to do? This is Thailand.