Thailand’s famous “tiger temple” is finally being closed down, after nearly two decades of controversy. The popular tourist attraction near Bangkok allowed visitors to handle and pose with the animals – if you’ve seen one of your Facebook friends (or Tinder matches) cuddling up to a tiger, it was probably there.
A raid by Thai police discovered 40 tiger cub carcasses preserved in freezers, while one monk was caught trying to flee with skins and fangs. Certain adults that had previously been micro-tagged were missing. Police have charged 22 people, including three Buddhist monks, with wildlife trafficking. Authorities are currently removing and resettling more than 100 tigers to safe locations across the country, amid allegations that the temple was only ever a front for the lucrative but illegal trade in tiger parts – which the temple’s managers deny.
I first visited the site back in 2008, as part of a wider project tracking the expansion of tiger farms across China and South-East Asia. I wanted to investigate what captive tiger breeding meant for the dwindling population of the big cats in the wild. Claims of conservation value were everywhere. Multilingual signs said the “temple” was rescuing tigers from a poaching epidemic that was targeting Thailand and its last remaining wild spaces. Tourist money was supposedly vital for the tigers’ Buddhist monk guardians to care for their wards.
Some of the tigers were paraded each day before being chained in an open-air display area, often in sweltering conditions, to indulge a growing tourist fad for selfies and intimate encounters with captive wildlife. Cubs were bottle-fed by monks, creating lucrative photo opportunities. Other tigers, unsuited to display, were kept out of sight in their cramped and unsanitary concrete enclosures.
Investigations by NGOs claim the selfie-friendly tigers have gone through a rigorous form of “training” regime, employing a range of circus techniques, including beatings and punishments. One alleged method involved urine spray collected from other tigers. This is a particularly brutal practice when dealing with territorial animals – a rival’s urine is the ultimate tiger repellent.
Allegations also persist that those animals selected for display were sedated and heavily chained in order to ensure the safety of tourists. The temple denies drugging its tigers.
What are these tigers really for?
The temple was founded in the 1990s as a sanctuary for rescued animals, but soon expanded after setting up a tiger breeding programme. These “tiger stocks” have no real conservation value however, as we can’t be sure what subspecies they are and many will be hybrids. There’s basically zero potential for reintroduction into the wild. Tigers are notoriously difficult to “rewild” and even if it were possible, any habituation to humans would mean they’d pose a significant danger to people.
Therefore, as its big cat numbers have grown, so too have rumours as to the true nature of the facility.
Tiger parts and their derivatives have long been valued by the lucrative traditional Chinese medicine industry. Their bones can reach £300 per kg, while an entire skin is worth tens of thousands of dollars. A tiger penis costs around US$1,300.
Tales of missing, unaccounted-for animals, have persisted. In April 2015 authorities raided the site following a tip-off by a whistleblowing vet who claimed at least three had recently gone missing. Earlier this year National Geographic and the NGO Cee4life alleged that, beneath its thin veneer of respectability, the tiger temple is merely a front for a more insidious and illegal trade in wildlife – a claim perhaps validated by the gruesome discoveries on the latest raid. However, the monks who run the temple deny the allegations.
Turning tigers into cash cows
Although the removal of the tigers has been widely applauded, the “tiger temple” is but one of many, encompassing hundreds of tiger farms across the region that collectively contain untold thousands of big cats. Conditions in this wider network are equally barbaric, if not more so, although the rationale behind their existence is similar: conservation.
Proponents of tiger farms argue that a legal supply of skins, bones or claws actually reduces the pressure on wild populations. It’s a fairly simplistic supply-side economic argument – flood the market with cheap farmed goods and there would apparently be no need for poachers.
Opponents of tiger farms point out the legal trade simply legitimises the products and means people also want cheaper skins from wild animals. Opponents want to directly reduce demand for these tiger parts and advocate zero tolerance for any form of illegal trading.
The “tiger temple” has consistently drawn most of its criticism over animal welfare. However, should the trade angle be proven, it would clearly contravene domestic law introduced to comply with international obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
This closure should be the first of many. Pressure can now be exerted on other ventures across Asia that turn tigers into exploitable commercial resources. Such facilities have no real conservation value and their sort of tourism is far from the responsible, educational experience that could make us truly appreciate wildlife – as wild animals.
The task now is to ensure that Thailand’s tiger crackdown is the beginning of a more concerted effort to outlaw animal cruelty and illegal trade wherever and whenever it exists. Otherwise, the entire episode may well turn out to be a wasted opportunity.