With a ferocious roar, Pu Ying leaps at the man who just shot her – but succeeds only in striking the bars of her enclosure. After 15 minutes of confused groaning, shaking her head under the effect of a powerful cocktail of ketamine and diazepam, the young tiger falls asleep. Veterinarians cover her eyes with a piece of cloth, place her on a stretcher and conduct medical tests.
“We are checking the heartbeat and the blood pressure, and also taking a few samples for further DNA analysis,” explains one of the team members.
Pu Ying wakes up about 15 minutes later inside a small cage loaded on a truck, dizzy and clearly terrified.
IN LATE MAY, THE Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation (DNP) ordered the seizure of 137 tigers at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, in Kanchanaburi province, a three-hour drive east of Bangkok. Hundreds of police officers and military personnel gathered at the Tiger Temple, as it has become known, armed with tranquilliser guns. The round-up would last six days.
On the second day, officials gathered journalists to show them what they called a “gruesome discovery”: 40 dead cubs in a kitchen freezer and 30 in jars and bottles, suspended in a vinegar solution. Some of the cubs had been one or two days old when they died; many had been unborn.
In truth, however, it was not much of a discovery. DNP officials had looked into that freezer on many previous occasions, according to several testimonies.
“It was a policy that had been agreed upon,” explains Tanya Erzinclioglu, a temple volunteer from Britain who had been working on the premises for six years. “The monks were keeping the carcasses to prove that [the cubs had died natural deaths and] were not sold on.”
Established in 1994, partly as a sanctuary for animals, Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua benefited from having a religious aura and powerful political connections. The mise-en-scène was staged to ensure there would be no turning back in the operation to shut down the temple. DNP deputy director-general Adisorn Nuchdamrong personally ensured that foreign photographers were tweeting the pictures; that’s how much he needed international support, how sensitive the issue was.
Over the following days, officials made some genuine discoveries: amulets made from the skin and teeth of tigers and jars of tiger wine in boxes with labels written in Chinese. A monk, secretary to the temple’s abbot, Phra Wisutthisarathen, and two laymen were arrested while attempting to flee in a pick-up truck loaded with tiger pelts and amulets.
The now-closed temple was a favourite among tourists from all over the world, its monks giving the place credibility.
“The Tiger Temple was not like any zoo,” says Mali Srithakul, owner of a travel agency in Bangkok, who used to sell one-day tours of the compound. “The monks always claimed to have a special spiritual bond to the animals. So Western customers, who generally do not appreciate zoos so much, were willing to go.”
Many tourists were so enamoured they stayed. The temple employed dozens of foreign volunteers every year: in exchange for food and accommodation, they took care of the animals, fed them, bathed them and checked on their health.
“We were there for the love of the tigers, always trying to improve their living standards – we knew every one of them by name and face, and their personalities,” says Erzinclioglu, in defence.
Such dedication was a boon for a temple that already had a multimillion-dollar annual income: an entry fee of 650 baht (HK$134) from each of the thousands of visitors it had each week; the 1,000 baht it charged for bottle-feeding a newborn cub; and “VIP morning programmes” costing 5,000 baht.
Some of those millions have been invested in Germany and the Czech Republic, to buy land (although the abbot claims the land was donated) on which temples designed to attract donations from followers in Europe have been built.
SUSPICIONS OF TRAFFICKING had hung over the temple for many years, but the media began to sit up and take notice in 2014, when three registered tigers went missing.
“It was like, one day they were there in their enclosure by night time and in the morning they were gone,” Erzinclioglu recalls. “We tried to warn the abbot but he made us understand that we should drop the case.”
Despite her unease, Erzinclioglu decided to remain at the temple.
“It is easy to look at it from a distance and say, ‘How could you not know, how could you stay’ ... but what about the remaining tigers? They needed care, too,” she says.
The abbot claimed the missing animals were “probably poached by outsiders” but CCTV footage gathered by the Australian charity Cee4Life (the Cee stands for “Conservation and Environmental Education”) clearly shows temple staff opening the door to a large pick-up truck on the night in question. (Upon being interrogated by police, the security guard on duty that night claimed he was obeying the abbot’s orders.)
Soon after the disappearance, the veterinarian in charge at the temple, Somchai Wisetmongkolchai, quit his position and accused his former employers of killing the tigers and selling the carcasses to a farm in neighbouring Laos. As evidence, he showed journalists three microchips that he said had belonged to the missing tigers.
“It is almost impossible to remove these chips without killing the tigers. So I’m pretty sure they are dead,” explained Somchai, although it remains unclear how he acquired them and the vet was later implicated by Cee4Life in the disappearances.
On the night the tigers were taken, Australian Sybelle Foxcroft, the founder of Cee4Life, already had a fair idea of what was going on.
Having first arrived at the temple in April 2007, to write the final paper of her graduate certificate on wildlife management, Foxcroft’s suspicions were quickly aroused. On her second night, while unable to sleep because of the tropical heat, she heard a tiger “roar in obvious distress”. Grabbing a flashlight, she ran to the animal enclosures. As she approached, she saw five or six men pointing their torches towards a tigress that had just given birth to a litter.
“That’s when I realised something really wrong was happening,” Foxcroft says. “So I crouched down and kept watching. They threw the cubs into a bag and put them in the back of a truck. I could hear the cubs screaming.”
So began a nine-year investigation by Foxcroft, first as an undercover agent for British charity Care For the Wild, then for Cee4Life. Foxcroft has shared her findings with Thai police and the DNP, who have undertaken their own investigations.
Detailing animal abuse, the swapping of male and female tigers between farms and across borders for breeding purposes, the killing of adult cats for their body parts and the selling of cubs in their hundreds, her report is damning and provided the basis for a National Geographic documentary. She also claims that the first eight tigers brought to the temple, between 1999 and 2003, were wild-caught, contrary to the official story: that they had been rescued by villagers who sought sanctuary for the animals in the temple.
The temple leaders have filed a defamation suit against Foxcroft.
For a decade, the authorities had regularly threatened to have the temple shut down. The fact the tigers were in the care of Buddhist monks was a sensitive matter, though, and that may not have been the only reason they chose not to act.
In 2010, Somchai declared that the temple had “recently donated” 700,000 baht to the police force and the military. A former local police colonel, Supitpong Pakjarung, is now vice-president of the Tiger Temple Foundation and manages a recently created entity, the Tiger Temple Company, which was granted a zoo licence by the DNP on April 18, a little more than a month before the Tiger Temple was shut down. Supitpong says his new zoo, which will open next to the temple, will be operational soon.
THE ILLEGAL WILDLIFE TRADE is worth US$2.5 billion per year across Southeast Asia, according to a 2013 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report. And tigers are especially popular: a 2013 report by Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) indicates that “an increasing number of live [tigers] and frozen bodies are being detected, with more than 50 per cent of seizures over the past 14 years occurring since 2010. It is suspected that many of these tigers are of captive origin … Seizures of suspected captive-origin tigers have risen in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and evidence suggests that such trade is also taking place in Indonesia.”
Tiger meat appears to be increasingly popular, particularly in southern China, because of its supposed health benefits, not least where virility is concerned. Even more in demand on the black market are tiger bones, an ingredient used in traditional Chinese medicine.
“Most of the importers are located in Vietnam and southern China,” explains Steve Galster, executive director of Freeland, a charity focusing on wildlife and human-trafficking issues across Southeast Asia. “The trade is going one way, from Thai zoos and farms to these final consumers.”
The profits are substantial. An adult male tiger typically sells for between 100,000 and 200,000 baht in Thailand and its value increases with every border crossed, until it can fetch up to US$30,000 in China. Females are slightly cheaper, although they are also sought for breeding purposes by farm owners. A live cub can be purchased for 120,000 baht in Thailand.
Nevertheless, “95 per cent of the tigers crossing borders are dead tigers”, says Galster.
There are several ways in which tigers are killed so that their skins, another valuable commodity, are not damaged. An overdose of tranquilliser is perhaps the most “humane” – although not all tigers are that lucky. Several gangs use knives to bleed the animals to death and some Thai trafficking rings use the “diving tigers” (suea damnam) method: the cats are locked in a small metal cage and lowered into a tank of water, drowning slowly. Traffickers are said to prefer this quiet and cheap method because there is no gunfire to be overheard and no incriminating bullets to be found by an investigator if a carcass is discovered.
The networks and routes used by traders in illegal wildlife are the same as those employed to traffic weapons, drugs and humans. To a certain extent, the same people are involved, too.
“When we talk about transnational crime, it takes more than driving a truck,” Galster says. “It’s about knowing the right people, paying the right officers to look the other way – that’s why these wildlife trafficking rings and other criminal rings ... overlap .”
Thai zoos are the source and the legal front of the trade, many believe, allowing traffickers to breed animals quickly while bringing in a legitimate income.
Seventeen official tiger zoos exist in Thailand, one of the most popular being Sriracha, a little more than an hour’s drive from Bangkok. If you’re heading from the capital to Pattaya, you can’t miss it; a giant cardboard cut-out of a tiger sits on artificial rocks by the side of the highway. Turn off, and you’ll find crocodiles, elephants and other endangered species. Mostly, though, people come for the tigers: twice a day, hundreds of tourists flock to the main building, which is shaped like a circus tent, to watch as five adult cats are made to jump on and off high stools, roll on the floor and even leap through rings of fire. At the end of the show, members of the audience take selfies with the animals.
At the back of the zoo, out of the public eye, two, three and, in some cases, up to five young tigers are packed in enclosures measuring just five by three metres. Several cats display injuries sustained in fights with other tigers or caused by the electric wire separating the cages.
“Conditions there are much worse than in the Tiger Temple, there is no question about it,” says Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.
The Sriracha zoo’s breeding programme is intensive. Males and females are put in cages together and cubs are separated from their mothers as young as two weeks old, so tourists can bottle-feed them and the tigresses can quickly become pregnant again. Newborns, sometimes only a few days old, are put in a glass room with a huge sow, which is supposed to feed the cubs together with her piglets. When we visit, two cubs have crawled as far as they can from their “wet nurse” and are sleeping alone on a towel.
While there is little evidence the zoo is involved in large-scale trafficking, a few episodes have tarnished its reputation.
In 2002, the Sriracha zoo shipped 100 Bengal tigers to the Sanya Love World theme park, in Hainan.
“Those 100 tigers were not sold,” a zoo spokeswomen told reporters at the time. “It was merely an exchange of animals with our Chinese partner.”
Clearly violating the conventions that ban all international trade of endangered species for commercial purposes, though, such a deal should not have been possible. The then chief of the Royal Forest Department, Plodprasop Suraswadi, who approved the shipment, was charged with malfeasance by the National Anti-corruption Commission. Plodprasop, who went on to become deputy prime minister in 2012, was acquitted.
TIGERS ARE CONSUMED because they are symbols of power. As such, the trade is supported by powerful men, which makes the work of law enforcement extremely difficult. In the aftermath of the raid on the Tiger Temple, 22 people were charged, among them three monks. But three months later, no one has been convicted and the case is slowly disappearing from the news.
“I am losing hope that anybody is ever going to be convicted,” Wiek says, “and especially not those who are really responsible, the monks.”
Another apparent untouchable is the sole director of the Star Tiger Zoo, in Chaiyaphum, in northeast Thailand. Daoruang Kongpitak has been arrested and charged three times with illegal possession of wildlife, with unregistered tigers and leopards having been found at her facility. She has also been implicated by several arrested traffickers.
The wife of a high-ranking local policeman, Daoruang has seen all charges against her dropped, due to “insufficient evidence”.
In 2014, Daoruang raised 14 million baht to become the major shareholder in the company that runs the zoo, even though it had operated at a loss since opening, in 2011.
“According to our evidence, we are quite confident that she is trafficking wildlife animals,” Adisorn told the Bangkok Post this year. “But she has government officials backing her up.”
Daoruang was invited to comment for this article but declined to do so.
Environmentalists agree that the first step should be for the justice system to take the matter seriously and target the assets of traffickers.
“The wildlife trade is a multibillion-dollar trade. But no one is asking, ‘Where did all the money go’?” Galster says. “I’ll tell you: it went to build houses, roads, casinos ... all this money has to be confiscated.”
Some politicians have suggested tigers could be raised in farms, like pigs, for consumption. Then, the theory goes, wild animals would be left in peace.
However, says an angry Galster, “Every indicator shows that the more the demand for tiger products is sustained from farms, the more the wild tigers are poached.”
It will always be cheaper for a single poacher to hunt down a wild tiger than to set up a farm.
There are an estimated 30 illegal tiger farms in Thailand, and more than 200 in China, housing close to 7,000 captive cats. But the number of wild tigers keeps declining; Thailand has about 200 left and there are perhaps 4,000 worldwide.
There is no easy solution. Suitable habitats are continuing to shrink and most captive-bred tigers could not survive in the wild, anyway.
JOURNALISTS ARE NOT allowed inside the facilities where the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua tigers are now being housed, so as “not to stress” the animals. The DNP sanctuary is five minutes by car from the closed temple – and, of course, the soon-to-open zoo – and activists who have been admitted say conditions are acceptable for a few months only, because the enclosures for the 147 rescued tigers (10 had been taken before the May raid that seized the remaining 137), as well as a few from other zoos and farms, are far too small. Some fear it is merely a case of the “merchandise” having changed hands.
On the bright side, the many education programmes led by charities throughout the region seem to be bearing fruit.
“Younger generations in Vietnam and China, including future elites, are not interested in buying tiger products,” Galster says. “So that’s good news.”