They were supposed to be safe.
A monk temple, known as the Tiger Temple, is home to 147 endangered tigers. It is supposed to be a sanctuary and safe place for these majestic cats, however the temple has been accused of speed breeding and supplying tigers housed at the temple to the black market.
Tigers are being poached at alarming rates, predominantly for their bones and pelts, but almost every part of the tiger is valued, especially in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The bones and pelts are most often smuggled into China, where the bones are used for tiger bone wine — a pricey TCM tonic — and the pelts are used for high-end decor.
According to National Geographic, in late December 2014, three adult male tigers vanished from the temple: seven-year-old Dao Nua, three-year-old Facram 3, and five-year-old Happy 2. All three tigers had been microchipped and registered with the government, according to Somchai Visasmongkolchai, the temple’s former veterinarian, since it is a legal requirement in Thailand for captive endangered animals.
In February 2015, Visasmongkolchai resigned and went to the authorities where he handed over the microchips, which according to Adisorn Nuchdumrong, deputy director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, had been cut out of the tigers.
This information prompted government authorities to go to the temple, where they confirmed that not only were the three tigers missing, but 13 tigers lacked microchips and one tiger carcass was found in a freezer.
An Australian non-profit organization, Cee4life (Conservation and Environmental Education for Life) says it has new information on how tigers have been taken illegally to and from the temple since at least 2004. The group’s Tiger Temple Report was given simultaneously to both Thai officials and National Geographic last month, and was released publicly last week (January 21).
Included in the report is a 2004 document stating that a female tiger named Nanfa had been “imported from Laos.” However, cross-border trading in live tigers, or their parts, violates both Thai law and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a body that regulates wildlife trade under a treaty signed by 182 countries, including Thailand.
The temple confirmed that they did swap some tigers, however they insist that no money or profit was involved, and that they did not violate CITES. They are planning a libel suit against National Geographic for defamation.
Unfortunately, nothing has come to light about the fate of the three missing tigers, and no one has been charged or prosecuted. However Gary Agnew, a Canadian who has spent extended time at the temple every year for a decade, did his own inquiry about the missing tigers.
“For lack of a better word,” he said, “the three tigers were poached. Employees were involved. It was an inside job. It came to light because it was such a botched initiative.” Meaning that they accidentally took tigers that were microchipped.
The government is planning to relocate the tigers from the temple to state wildlife facilities, but as no surprise, the temple wants to keep them. The Department of National Parks was prevented from moving the first round of tigers, and two uniformed men now guard the temple’s front gate.
The department wants to remove all 147 tigers, Adisorn says, and if necessary, they will get a court order and the help of police and the army.
When they get the tigers out, the animals will be distributed among nine government wildlife facilities where they will be safe — away from the people at the temple who were supposed to be protecting them in the first place.