The discovery of tiger parts, dead cubs and many made-from-tiger amulets at a famous temple in Thailand in early June has drawn attention to the country as a well-known trafficking hub of wildlife animals and their products. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species signed by 182 parties including Thailand, international wildlife trade of endangered and protected species both plant and animal is prohibited. Tigers are on the list. Thailand’s animal tourism under greater scrutiny after Tiger Temple raid The controversial Tiger Temple, formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, in Thailand’s western province of Kanchanaburi has long attracted tourists as they can touch the big cats and feed their cubs closely. No one could imagine that one day the animals which lived under the protection of Buddhist monks in the sanctuary would be reported as being abused and traded illegally. According to records, the monks at the temple first started taking care of tigers in 1999. As time went by, the tigers multiplied until there were 147 of the carnivorous mammals living there. Taking advantage of the surge in its tiger population, the temple opened its gates to allow the public to come and experience touching the tigers with a zoo-like service in which each individual paid an entrance fee of 600 baht (around US$17). However, the temple has long been accused of mistreating its tigers, illegal breeding and animal trafficking, accusations which it has denied. Additionally, three adult tigers were reported to have vanished last year, regarding which the temple claimed it has no knowledge of such a report. According to Thailand’s Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act BE 2535, importing or exporting of tigers and their carcasses is prohibited by law and subject to a maximum four-year imprisonment and/or a 40,000 baht fine. Thai police charge 22 with wildlife trafficking at tiger temple attraction In January, National Geographic published an article on a report by an Australian non-profit organisation that alleged the monastery was “speed breeding” tigers and involved in the illegal trade of tigers. In its “Tiger Temple Report,” Conservation and Environmental Education for Life (Cee4life) said it had information indicating that tigers were taken illegally to and from the temple since at least 2004. Evidence of the illegal activity includes footage from the temple’s security cameras and an audiotape of a conversation between the temple’s abbot and its veterinarian who subsequently resigned and went to the authorities. Due to the countless reports and word of mouth about the temple’s exploitation and malnutrition of the tigers, the Thai government finally decided to relocate the tigers to be under the care of the government. As a result of the raid, wildlife officers found 40 tiger cubs, 30 cubs preserved in small jars and more than 1,000 amulets stuffed with tiger parts in the abbot’s residence. The temple immediately faced eight charges including illegal trade of an endangered species. Since the raid, the temple has yet to clarify what happened there in relation to the tiger trade and illegal breeding. The temple’s now unemployed workers said that the raid from the government was linked to an internal conflict inside the temple and deny what the reports allege. The workers said that there are many “stakeholders” in the temple and the raid is the result of a “political conflict” among monks and those stakeholders by using the so-called “tiger game” to seek money. Dozens of dead tiger cubs found in freezer of Thai temple after raid They insist that the temple has taken care of the big cats and treated them properly in the forest-like environment. Each tiger was fed with approximately 5 kilograms of boiled chicken per day with supplements. They also showered them, cleaned their cages, and allowed them to play outside every day. “If the department wants to relocate the tigers for real, they should have done that a long time ago. But they know these tigers will be funded with a huge amount of money from foreign NGOs so they decide to do so. They just want the funds to go directly to them,” said one temple worker. Asked about the dead cubs that officers found, the workers said it is the temple’s veterinarian who kept those cubs for study purposes, adding that they have no idea where the more than 1,000 amulets came from and denying that three tigers vanished from the facility. Meanwhile, Adisorn Nuchdumrong, deputy director general of the Department of National Parks, said the raid was carried out to save the tigers and that the temple can no longer exploit them. Adisorn affirmed the department has records of the temple’s involvement in animal trade and animal trafficking. According to Adisorn, the tigers at the temple had many health problems. Some of them are blind and not healthy due to inbreeding, he said, adding that none of them could return to the wild. Though the investigation is ongoing and many suspicions have yet to be answered, the issue of the missing three tigers is possibly related to the tiger trade. Even though Adisorn said it was too soon to conclude that the Tiger Temple was breeding cubs for cross-border trade, he, however, produced police documents as “strong evidence” showing that the temple and a counterpart in Laos engage in illegal animal trading. Thai wildlife officials start removing 137 tigers from Buddhist temple Talking about supply and demand in the tiger market, Adisorn reaffirmed that no matter how much demand there is, the eradication of the supply would help save tiger lives. “For tiger cubs, it costs around 200,000-300,000 baht, for adult tigers, they cost about 1 million baht. Based on the information we have, the main market is China via Laos,” said Adisorn. The issue of animal trafficking at a spiritual place raises the question of how the government can regulate and search such places that take advantage of the faithful to conduct illegal acts. The temple case may not be able to expose all of what happens in Thailand, but it has made the issue of animal trafficking in Thailand come to light again and it is time for the country to take more serious measures.