KANCHANABURI — Thailand’s most infamous tiger petting zoo may not have used up its nine lives when it was raided and shut down following gruesome discoveries two years ago.
Though closure of the so-called Tiger Temple was hailed as a victory for wildlife protection, national park officials and the head of an animal welfare organization confirmed it will reopen this month – with 24 new tigers.
After the temple was raided in June 2016, the park has continued operating, albeit housing only a 100-or-so underfed animals. But this month, the temple will import more tigers for their attractions – this time, in a zoo.
“The zoo they’re opening won’t be inside the temple, but on a 20-rai plot next to it,” Adisorn Noochdamrong of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said by phone. “It will be legal, because our department can control it by law directly. They’re registered as a zoo now, not just having animals in the temple like before.”
Edwin Wiek of the Wildlife Friends Foundation said the new felines would be imported from the Mallika Tiger Zoo in Bangkok.
An employee at a tour operator that sells trips to the temple, Thailand Tours Center, also confirmed that the zoo would be reopen.
“Come down here and write a good report or a bad report, but it’s good business for us,” said the employee, who refused to give his name.
Attempts to reach a Tiger Temple representative and calls to a listed number for the venue were unsuccessful.
Before the commercial facility was shut down and accused of illegally possessing and trafficking the animals it claimed to protect, it was in the process of obtaining legal status as a zoo.
The temple opened two decades ago and grew into a popular and profitable tourist attraction where tourists paid to take selfies with tigers. It was long dogged by accusations that it bred and trafficked tigers and other wildlife. After years of failed interventions, wildlife officials raided it in 2016 following several standoffs with temple monks who blocked their way.
The removed 147 tigers and discovered tiger pelts, “energy drinks” made from tiger, amulets made from their skins and dozens of dead tiger cubs kept in jars.
The venue returned to the news this past weekend when photos went viral showing it was full of emaciated wildlife abandoned there after wildlife officials left with the tigers.
In a now-deleted post, Facebook user August Roikaew said the park was almost empty of visitors and only had volunteers caring for its lion and dozens of grazing animals from their own pockets.
The Facebook user described the animals as emaciated and hungry, urging people to visit the place. His post was picked up by the Drama-addict page and others who condemned August, saying that the Tiger Temple should be shut down completely because of its past atrocities.
A Matichon reporter who traveled to the Tiger Temple on Saturday said that there were indeed over 100 animals still living there, some of them looking very thin.
“The National Parks Department took all the tigers but there are still cows, buffaloes, deer, boars, peacocks and junglefowl here,” Chamnarn Yothee, 41, one of the temple’s workers said. “Some tourists bring them vegetables, bananas and hay as donations. I myself am trying to find food for all the animas everyday, since I pity them so much.”
Despite what seemed a victory for wildlife protection, animal rights activist Wiek said the situation for big cats is “getting worse than ever before.”
Tigers in Trouble
Of the around 50 tiger-related attractions in Thailand, approximately eight new, tiger-based tourist attractions have opened in the past two years, Wiek said.
Attractions include other tiger temples and zoos that keep tigers run by local moguls who can afford to buy and raise them, Wiek said.
“Some very rich people in a district might have 200 to 400 tigers under them,” he said.
About 1,500 tigers are kept in captivity, he said, a number that is growing. In 2007, there were only 600 tigers at such establishments, Wiek said.
Although Thailand is a signatory of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, and the government had vowed to end commercial breeding, business is booming at the tiger farms.
Wiek hopes that at the convention’s next conference, in Sri Lanka, Thai parks officials will face tough questioning.
“The government signed the agreement thinking, ‘This is just a piece of paper, who cares?’ But the document was written up to make sure that such farms had to be decreased,” Wiek said.
The government wants further enforcement of existing laws to display Thailand’s commitment, a government spokesman said.
“All of this is private companies’ doing,” Weerachon Sukhonthapatipak of the Prime Minister’s Office said of captive tigers. “So as the state, it’s our duty to enforce the law upon them even further. We will show that we give importance to wildlife law and show that we’re transparent, fixing things and in accordance with international policies like CITES.”
But Wiek questioned whether national park officials have the backing to prosecute those responsible for wildlife crimes.
Attempts to bring the former Tiger Temple abbot to justice following the 2016 raid sputtered out.
“Tigers may die when they’re repossessed. Also, the people in charge of these tiger farms are never taken to court,” Wiek said. “The National Parks Department check these places but they don’t have enough tools to enforce the law.”
Kanjana Nitaya, director of the national Wildlife Conservation Office, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said by phone Wednesday that parks officials are readily investigating such establishments and maintain a database of tigers kept there.
“We have a database of all the birth and death dates of the tigers in these places. We know how many are there, and also their DNA data and even their tiger stripe markings,” Kanjana said. “That way we know the status of each tiger and can investigate if we hear about anything going amiss.”
Kanjana said park officials were unaware of any illegally operating wildlife entertainment venues.
“Do you know of any? Please tell us. Anyone should quickly report them into us at 1362, and we will go investigate immediately to see if they’re really harming the animals.”
Wiek confirmed that presence of captivity-farmed tigers likely involves transnational crime. He said tiger cubs that grow too large for entertainment are killed and illegally sold for meat and parts.
The large number of farmed tigers does nothing to eliminate illegal poaching and trafficking.
“Chinese and Vietnamese consumers who believe that tiger penises and bones make you sexually stronger believe that wild tigers are better for it,” Wiek said. “People will want to spend the few baht on bullets and shoot a wild tiger instead of paying 150,000 to 200,000 for a farmed one.”
“Of course, that’s nonsense,” Wiek said.