Thai Officials to Rescue 147 Tigers from Monastery After Investigations Reveal Trafficking
Death threats haunt founder of conservation group behind the revelation
Halfway through my Skype interview last night with Sybelle Foxcroft — the wildlife biologist who’s the key source behind last week’s horrific National Geographic investigative report about illegal cross-border tiger trafficking from the famed Tiger Temple in Thailand — she’s interrupted by a Thai official. Our connection is rather spotty so I can’t quite hear what the official, who’s off-screen, is telling her, but once he leaves, Foxcroft turns back to me, rather disturbed.
Suddenly, she isn’t feeling all that safe holed up in a remote national park and wildlife refuge in Thailand, without transport, miles from any town. She thinks she should relocate as soon as possible.
“I received a threat yesterday. I was told by a very trusted source that they [those involved in the trafficking] want their hands on me… and I know there’s someone leaking information,” she tells me. “Now that [the report] is actually disturbing money and business from their contacts, the danger is heightened. I’ve moved around quite a bit but…”
Foxcroft is the founder of Cee4Life (Conservation and Environmental Education for Life), which publicly released its Tiger Temple Report on Friday. The report provides solid evidence that since at least 2004, tigers have been smuggled in and out of the monastery, formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, in Kanchanaburi (about a three-hour drive from Bangkok), and that the monks had for years been speed-breeding tigers for the international black market in wildlife trade. The report also alleges that this has been happening with the full knowledge of, and at the direction of, the temple’s founder and leader, Abbot Phra Acham Phoosit (Chan) Kanthitharo.
Based on the information in the Cee4Life report, which includes evidence from a whistleblower codenamed “Charlie” that three micro-chipped male tigers were removed from the temple in December 2014 (and most likely killed), the Thai Department of National Parks is planning to go in and remove all the 147 tigers from the temple this week, possibly by as soon as Wednesday, and send them to nine wildlife facilities across the country.
Which is why Foxcroft, an Australian national, is staying put at this particular refuge.
She is waiting for the wildlife officials to bring in the first batch of 14 tigers from the temple — ones who were apparently caught in the wild in Laos. Their DNA trail, she says, “could actually lead to breaking down multiple trade routes and take down other people who have traded with the Tiger Temple.”
Foxcroft is also supposed to advise the DNR veterinarians on how to care for these tigers. For one, they can’t be fed raw meat, at least not right away, since they have been living on a diet of boiled chicken, she had been telling me before we were interrupted. “They have to be on a special diet to adjust their digestive systems… some of the older ones may never adjust to raw diets… I know these animals quite well, so it’s a good thing,”
The Tiger Temple draws thousands of tourists from across the world every year, all thrilled at the prospect of getting up close and personal with the temple’s 147 tigers, petting their bodies, and photographing themselves holding their massive heads or pulling at their tails. Visitors seem willing to fork out big moolah for the same: A day at the tiger temple could cost $200 or more. The temple makes some $3 million annually off of the tourists.
There have long been reports of disturbing animal abuse, trafficking, and visitor safety issues at the temple from former volunteers, staff and wildlife investigators. Farming tigers also violates a 2007 CITES decision that “tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.” But so far no action has been taken against the temple.
“There are a lot of religious sensitivities here and power and influence at work,” Sharon Guynup, the reporter who broke the story for NatGeo told me when I spoke with her on Friday. Board members at the temple have included a Thai general and an admiral. All this partly explains why, even though the Department of National Parks had been given the Cee4Life report in December, it hasn’t been able to go in and rescue the animals.
“The fact that a government agency has to work so hard to retrieve these animals, that belong to the state in the first place, is pretty wild,” Guynup says. She explained that 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. Clearly, the temple authorities have violated all of these rules. They started out with eight tigers in 2001 and now they have 147.
Foxcroft has been monitoring the tigers at the temple since 2007, when she first went there as student to research captive-tiger management and stumbled upon temple workers removing two cubs from a female tiger on her second night there. Since her status as a student allowed her greater access to the tigers and to areas off limit to regular visitors, Foxcroft stayed on investigating and recording the goings on at the monastery.
“There was just tiger after tiger that went after that,” she says. “The thing that got me the most was I went there because I thought this was a safe place where I could do my studies… that belief was shattered.”
Her cover was blown later that year and she had to seek protection at the Australian embassy. But despite multiple death threats, she kept going back in disguise for another nine years to keep a tab on how many tigers had been born, which ones where still there who had been taken. “I kept going because I knew that if I stopped it would be over for the tigers,” she says. Foxcroft worked in conjunction with two other women members of Cee4Life who posed as tourists and visited the temple three or four times a year. “Since the local police were lax on this matter, we had to keep pursuing it until the evidence was undeniable… we basically had to do the job of the police,” she says.
Between them, the activists compiled, what Guynup calls, “a complicated Excel document” that identifies all the tigers that have been either born or brought into the temple since 2007 (when the monastery had only 18 big cats). According to Cee4Life’s data, 281 tigers have passed through the temple from 1999 to 2015. Given that there are only 147 at the temple currently, it means that 134 are missing, a number that Foxcroft says is it way too great to be accounted by natural deaths alone.
The missing tigers, Foxcroft says, have been trafficked. “We know the route [they were smuggled out], we know another forestry department is involved…the evidence is rock solid now.”
Once the national parks officials retrieve the tigers, the Royal Thai Police’s environmental crimes division will take over the investigation into what happened to the three male tigers that disappeared in December 2014.
But all of that is yet to happen. Until the case it truly turned over the Thai Royal Police and until arrests have been made, it’s important for the international community to keep pressure on the Thai government to follow through on the investigation.
Meanwhile, as I talk with Foxcroft, the official who made her uneasy returns. I stay online, hidden behind a virtual window, so that I can bear witness in case anything goes wrong. An agonizing 45 minutes pass. I watch blurry images of her and catch snatches of conversation where she tries to explain to the man why she’s staying at the refuge. Finally he leaves. Foxcroft turns around and lets me know that all’s clear. The official didn’t pose a threat and was actually quite helpful. She says she’s waiting to hear from Adisorn Nuchdumrong, director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, about when the raid on the temple will happen.
Despite the false alarm, we are both quite jittery by now. “It’s horrible that when all you want to do is try to save some animals and this is the situation you end up in,” Foxcroft tells me. We sign off, but I promise to stay online in case she needs help.
At 5 a.m. she messages me again: “Charlie [the whistleblower] just called me, his friend rang him to tell him, that apparently on the 7pm Thai news there is an order to remove all tigers from tiger temple!!”
The raid, it appears, is going to be on schedule. Hopefully, by Wednesday (Tuesday night Pacific time) the 147 big cats will be housed in new, safer homes. And within a few days Foxcroft will be safely out of the country.
However, as both Foxcroft and Guynup took care to stress, in the end, this isn’t just about one Buddhist temple in Thailand, but about tiger farms in general and what it means for the world's remaining 3,200 wild tigers that are hanging on for dear life.
Not only are these animals bred and raised under abysmal conditions, trafficking captive tigers into the illegal trade translates to dead wild tigers in the jungles of India, Thailand and other parts of Asia (because it’s cheaper to kill a tiger in the wild). Despite being illegal, there are at least 5,000 tigers in farms in China and more than 900 captive tigers in Thailand.
As Guynup says: “It’s not just about this one case. It’s about the long-term impact of this kind of trade in animals. If we continue, as a world, allowing captive tiger breeding, we are not going to have any wild tigers left in maybe a decade.”