BANGKOK — Armed with a zoo permit and a brand new set of tigers, the people behind the infamous Tiger Temple plan to reopen for business in March.
Eight months after officials raided and shut down the temple, where they discovered a grotesque operation where tiger parts were harvested for magic amulets and energy drinks, a new zoo is set to open right nearby under a different name in March. Meanwhile a criminal case against those operating the temple on trafficking charges appears to be going nowhere.
Adisorn Noochdamrong, a national park official who led the June raid on the so-called Tiger Temple, said the project is perfectly legal, as the zoo was registered two months before the police operation began.
It’s also marketed as a Tiger Temple, where tourists can pay to interact with 105 big cats when it opens. Adisorn said it won’t be the animals rescued from the former venue, but rather tigers transferred from another commercial zoo in Nakhon Nayok province.
“They have the right to do that,” said Adisorn, a former deputy director of national park department who now serves as the ministry’s ombudsman.
At least one tour company is already selling tours for a “Breakfast with Monks & Tigers” at the site for 10,550 baht for one person.
“They are re-opening,” Tony Clark, an employee of Thailand Tour Centers, said by telephone. “It’ll be at the same place.”
Clark said the tours will start some time after March 1, adding that he expects most of the clients will be foreign tourists.
For over a decade the Tiger Temple profited handsomely by charging foreigners to visit more than 100 tigers kept without any permit. Animal rights activists had long accused it of abusing and trafficking to overseas buyers the very animals it claimed to protect.
Paper Tiger Prosecution
Although the Tiger Temple and the upcoming zoo are separate entities, the link between the two was undisputed. A legal rep for the controversial temple announced last April that it was seeking permission to open a zoo under the auspices of Tiger Temple Co., which would be run by a disciple appointed by Tiger Temple abbot Phra Wisutthisarathen.
The zoo permit was granted two months before wildlife officials finally raided the temple, officially known as Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, to shut it down following years of complaints.
The raid also confirmed activists’ worst fears with shocking discoveries of tiger and other animal parts used to make commercial products. Among the gruesome discoveries were cured tiger pelts, claws used to make magic amulets, tiger-based energy drinks and dozens of bottles containing dead tiger cubs.
Abbot Phra Wisutthisarathen, known locally as Luang Ta Chan, and his associates were charged with illegally selling and possessing protected animals. They have repeatedly denied the allegations and have remained free while the case stalls.
Adisorn, who was in charge of the case until his transfer last month, said the cases have yet to reach the prosecutor’s office and blamed the police.
“For example, when we followed up on the case, it turned out some suspects that we named among the accused were missing from the case file compiled by the investigators,” he said. “So we had to protest and show them documents, and they had to spend more time revising the case file.”
No Longer Wild
A report on National Geographic suggests that those behind the Tiger Temple’s offshoot zoo operation are distancing themselves from the scandals; the zoo company earlier this month changed its name from Tiger Temple Co. Ltd. to Golden Tiger (Thailand) Co. Ltd.
Adisorn said he doesn’t know whether the company paid any money to the owners of Mali Sarika, the Nakhon Nayok zoo providing the tigers for the new facility.
Though he said the transfer is legal, Adisorn cast doubt on claims the zoo will open in March. Construction is not finished, he said, and wildlife officials will have to inspect whether it can actually accommodate that many tigers.
“We have to first see whether it’s in accordance with our regulations,” Adisorn said.
As for the tigers seized from the Tiger Temple in June, he said they are bound to live out of their days in captivity.
All of the tigers are currently housed at breeding stations run by national park authorities. None will be released to the wild because they were held in the Tiger Temple for so long they can’t survive in the wild.
“It will very difficult for them to feed and fend for themselves,” Adisorn said.