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Thai Officials Reject Controversial Tiger Temple’s Application for a Zoo Permit

Big cats held at the temple will be rescued at the rate of five individuals a month

Efforts to rescue the tigers held captive in Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple may not be moving as fast as most wildlife activists would like, but there may be hope for the big cats yet. In the past month, five more of the 147 tigers held at the monastery in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province have been relocated to wildlife refuges run by the country’s national parks department, bringing the total number of tigers rescued since January up to 10.

tourists play with tigers in a mud pitPhoto by Sharon GuynupThe temple's wildly successful operation is based around claims that the first tigers to arrive at the temple were rescued from poachers and all the big cats currently housed there live freely and peacefully with the temple’s monks.

The big cats will continue to be relocated at the rate of five individuals every month, the temple’s lawyer, lawyer Saiyood Pengboonchoo, told the Thai news outlet Khaosod. Meanwhile, Thai wildlife officials also rejected the temple’s application for a zoo license that would allow it to expand its operations to run a safari-style tiger sanctuary.

The Buddhist temple, Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, draws thousands of tourists from across the world every year who wish to have personal contact with the temple’s tigers. A day at the tiger temple could cost a person $200 or more. The temple makes some $3 million annually off of the tourists.

This wildly successful operation is based around claims that the first tigers to arrive at the temple were rescued from poachers and all the big cats currently housed there live freely and peacefully with the temple’s monks, who are actively engaged in conservation and rescue work. But the temple has also long been dogged by allegations that rather than serving as a rescue center, it operates as an illegal tiger-breeding facility and is involved in wildlife trafficking.

The temple has been in the spotlight again since January, after a National Geographic investigation provided pretty solid evidence backing these allegations. The report revealed that the temple has been speed-breeding and trafficking tigers since at least 2004 and that these covert activities have been happening with the full knowledge of the temple’s founder and leader, Abbot Phra Acham Phoosit (Chan) Kanthitharo. 

The NatGeo investigation was based, in part, on information provided in a report by the Australian animal welfare group, Cee4Life, which included videotaped evidence from a whistleblower codenamed “Charlie” that three micro-chipped male tigers were trafficked from the temple in December 2014 with the full knowledge of the temple’s lead abbot. (Read EIJ’s article on this issue, which includes an interview with Cee4Life founder Sybelle Foxcroft, here.)

The Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation has been trying to remove the tigers from the temple for more than a month now, but progress has been slow, even though the tigers legally belong to the government of Thailand and the temple is allowed to keep them under the stipulation that the monks not breed them, make any money off of them nor trade them. The monastery’s socio-cultural standing and deep political ties have been major roadblocks. Board members at the temple have included a Thai general and an admiral.

In fact, the rejection of the zoo license was only on technical grounds. Temple lawyer Saiyood Pengboonchoo told reporters last week that the application didn’t make the cut in part because they had missed the 60-day deadline within which a re-drafted blueprint of its expansion plans had to be submitted. He indicated that the temple would be resubmitting its application soon and would buy back the tigers that have been rescued once it received the zoo permit.

As part of its expansion plans, the temple is building a $170 million “World Buddhist Sanctuary” that will include a new temple building and a larger tiger enterprise — housing up to 500 tigers in the project's initial phase. The temple has split itself up in to three separate entities — the monastery, a charitable foundation, and a corporation that will handle a new tiger enterprise.

Temple officials, of course, deny the trafficking, breeding and animal abuse allegations. "This is their home. They are happy here," Supitpong Pakdijarung, an official of the foundation that runs the temple, told Reuters. "The government has to find a budget to take care of them. Here, the money comes from donations. It is about giving and generosity."

But the country’s wildlife officials say that this current round of negative attention on the temple is affecting Thailand’s image as a tourist destination. “The world is looking at us," Teunchai Noochdumrong, director of the country's Wildlife Conservation Office, told Reuters. "The temple did not allow officials to enforce the law. The temple has affected Thai tourism."

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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