Chandigarh, June 2 (IANS) The hate mail on social networking sites against the Buddhist monks and authorities managing Thailand’s famous Tiger Temple complex in Kanchanaburi province is increasing by the hour.
As Thai wildlife authorities dig out more about the goings-on at the ‘Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery’, accusations are flying thick and fast on how the majestic tigers were being treated at the facility.
Thailand’s wildlife authorities on Wednesday broke the news about bodies of 40 cubs being found from a freezer inside the complex. This has led to earlier accusations of ill-treatment of the tigers, especially they being drugged and beaten, to make them virtually domesticated so that tourists, who paid lavishly to get selfies and photographs clicked with the tigers and tiger cubs, could enjoy being in the company of the otherwise ferocious animals.
Of the 137 tigers at the Tiger Temple complex, about 40 have been “rescued” and re-located to a facility of Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plan Conservation (DNP) at Ratchaburi. As the raids by Thai wildlife authorities continue, more is likely to emerge from the ‘not-so-transparent’ dealings of the temple authorities in recent years.
This correspondent, who visited the complex in January 2014, had a first-hand experience with the tigers at the monastery. The visit was made amid reports and accusations that the tigers were drugged and ill-treated.
“If that (drugged tigers) had been the case, how would one explain the young but fully-grown tigers playing in a water-pit with tourists and volunteers for almost one hour. The sleepy tigers also looked more well-fed than being drugged as they were alert to even the flies disturbing them,” a tourist, Pooja, had told IANS at that time.
The Tiger Temple management has been particularly in the line of fire since January this year following the ‘Tiger Temple Report’ by Australian conservation group ‘Cee4life’ which brought out “shocking” allegations that the Tiger Temple was trafficking in wildlife through Laos.
“We were dismayed last month when the Tiger Temple was granted an official zoo permit by the DNP. This was despite longstanding allegations and ample evidence that the Tiger Temple is trafficking tigers into the illegal wildlife trade. This week’s actions to remove the tigers from the Tiger Temple are long overdue and we strongly encourage DNP to make the removal of the tigers permanent,” WWF-Thailand country director Yowalak Thiarachow was quoted as saying.
In the past, there have been demands that the activities at the Tiger Temple be investigated.
The monastery, in Thailand’s Sai Yok district of Kanchanaburi province, provides a lifetime experience with the big cats. Located about 160 km from Thailand’s capital city Bangkok on Highway-323, the complex, spread over several acres of natural forested area in western Thailand not far from the Myanmar border, has not only tigers but other wildlife like deer, wild boars, water buffalos, gibbons and others.
The monastery was set up in 1994 though the tigers came around 1999. Starting from 7-8 “donated” tigers of the Indo-Chinese type, the complex is now home to nearly 140 tigers of all ages and sizes.
Despite the ongoing raids and accusations, temple authorities are defending their actions.
“There are rumours and allegations constantly being spread on the internet about Tiger Temple. For years many were left unanswered, as the Buddhist way is to keep silent and not engage in a fight,” the temple authorities said in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
The authorities claimed that mortality rate of tiger cubs at the complex was much lower than the average of 40 per cent documented by wildlife researchers.
The temple authorities, justifying the recovery of bodies of tiger cubs in freezers, said: “In 2010, the ex-vet of Tiger Temple changed this policy. Instead of cremation, the deceased cubs were preserved in jars or kept frozen. We have documented all the deaths from 2010 and have photographic evidence of them still being within the Temple.”
“Interestingly, the temple is accused of breeding cubs to make more money off tourists whilst simultaneously being accused of selling their young tiger cubs on the black market. The Temple tigers have been successful at reproduction, and this is because tigers are still felines and can breed as well as any cat when they are happy and healthy. While the Temple does generate some income from tiger cubs born here through the tiger cub activities offered, the temple does not breed tiger cubs for sale,” the temple authorities added.
The tourist activities at the complex, with an entry fee of 600 baht (over Rs.1,000) per person, included lying-down with a tiger, patting it on its head, holding a tiger’s head on your lap, playing with young grown-up tigers, feeding a tiger cub with a milk bottle and walking tigers with a leash.
With monks, local trainers and staff and several foreign volunteers in attendance, the Tiger Temple offered the closest and safest encounter with live tigers — from one month old cubs to the real big cats weighing over 250 kg.
For 1,000 baht per person per activity, one could play with grown-up tigers in one enclosure, play and feed tiger cubs in another one and get to keep the tiger head on one’s lap at the canyon.
Monks at the monastery say that the big cats have been “hand-reared with compassion (by the monks)”. The tigers get whole chicken, beef and dried cat food.
(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at [email protected])