KANCHANABURI — After years of pushing back, the controversial Tiger Temple today said it is finally willing to give up all remaining 137 tigers it has kept illegally for commercial operations, according to a legal representative.
The announcement came after more than 1,000 officials descended on the temple Monday morning and, after being denied entry to temple, returned with a search warrant to remove the tigers, the largest effort by authorities in recent months to do so.
“They have a court warrant so we have to comply,” Tiger Temple lawyer Saiyood Pengboonchoo said by phone at around 4pm Monday, hours after the temple staff initially tried to block the officials from entering the compound in Kanchanaburi province.
Saiyood said the temple, known officially as Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, will no longer obstruct or interfere with the effort led by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
If true, it would prove to be a crucial victory for wildlife activists and the temple’s critics, who have for years documented alleged abuses and trafficking of the big cats at the hands of the temple staff.
Saiyood insisted the tigers have never been mistreated.
Tourists Allowed Inside Amidst Standoff
The temple’s surrender followed hours of dramatic confrontation, which pit monks and staff against a combined force of wildlife officials, forest rangers, soldiers, policemen and veterinarians numbering more than 1,000.
According to the Department of National Parks, officials aim to remove 20 tigers by Monday night, and it will take seven days to transport all of the 137 tigers to shelters.
Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, which has been calling for the tigers to be removed for years, covered the unfolding events via Twitter.
Despite the tense scene, the temple remains open to tourists as usual. In fact, Saiyood said, the temple did not charge any visitors today.
“We open the show for free today because we don’t know how long [the tigers] are going to stay with us,” Saiyood said.
At one point, Wiek reported that tigers were loose in the compound while tourists were still inside, but Saiyood said the tigers were simply “let out” for a show, and the visitors were not in any immediate threat.
Just before 2pm, Wiek posted photos showing caged vehicles and officials armed with tranquilizer guns moving into the temple.
Ten big cats have been removed from the controversial temple on two occasions: five in January and another five in February.
Cee4Life, an activist group opposed to the temple’s operations, applauded the authorities for taking further steps today in removing the rest of the 137 tigers.
“This is an extraordinary stand against wildlife trafficking of tigers and the abuse of the tigers,” Cee4Life founder Sybelle Foxcroft wrote in an email. “I thank the DNP for pursuing this ethical and moral stance and for acting on the evidence Cee4life provided to them."
Years of Defiance
Monday’s operation was the most recent attempt by authorities to either remove the tigers or shut down the temple, where tourists pay to pose for photographs with the wild animals.
In February 2015, a similar raid on the temple ended in failure when the temple staff simply refused to unlock doors and cages.
For years, the Tiger Temple has flouted laws that forbid keeping or breeding tigers for commercial purposes. Wildlife activists have also accused the temple of abusing the tigers and even selling three of the big cats to a buyer in Laos, a violation of an international treaty on wild creatures.
Saiyood, the temple’s legal representative, has previously acknowledged that the temple kept the tigers illegally, but insisted it was done for their well-being. He denied allegations of animal mistreatment at the temple.
In a bid to keep the tigers, the temple set up a private entity and successfully secured a permit to operate a tiger zoo in April. Saiyood said he will buy back any of the tigers confiscated by the Department of National Park once the zoo construction is completed.
Teeranai Charuvastra contributed reporting.