Thai temple can keep tigers but not for making money

Thai temple can keep tigers but not for making money

Thailand's "Tiger Temple" in Kanchanaburi province is off the tourist map, at least for now.

Officials have descended on the temple to count and register its 146 tigers and investigate the apparent disappearance of three tigers.

Backing off from an earlier notice that it would remove the tigers, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) has agreed to let the temple keep them, but said it should not run the place as a business.

Over the past two days, DNP officials counted the tigers, which were led out of cages, tied to trees and scanned for microchips that are required to be implanted in them.

Witnesses said 11 out of 91 tigers did not have the mandatory microchips last Friday.

DNP officials invited local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to witness the operation.

DNP deputy director-general Adisorn Nuchdamrong told reporters on Friday that the temple may be allowed to keep the tigers but must stop breeding them and using them for money.

The DNP technically owns the tigers, but has a memorandum of understanding with the temple that it can keep them but not breed them. The fate of the three missing tigers was not clear.

In a raid on the temple in February, the DNP had confiscated endangered birds for which the temple did not have permits. Earlier this month, there were angry scenes when monks resisted the removal of several endangered bears as well.

DNP officials, who were backed by police officers and soldiers, found their exit blocked despite having a court order.

They had to hoist the bears over the wall using a crane.

The temple's abbot had argued with the top DNP official at the raid, refusing to allow any of the captive animals to be taken away.

Monks sat and chanted under a canopy as police blocked them from hindering the bear rescue.

But the DNP has not filed any charges against the temple or its abbot, Pra Acharn Phusit Khantitharo.

"This is not an acceptable outcome," Mr Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand - one of the NGOs that witnessed the DNP's operation - told The Sunday Times yesterday.

"Rich and powerful monks are able to get away, be above the law." While styling itself as a tiger "sanctuary", the temple has been making millions of baht from tourists in what amounts to a petting zoo for years.

While its photogenic Buddhist monks in orange robes walking adult tigers around have been celebrated in some documentary films, the Britain-based Care for the Wild International (CWI) has found problems with the set-up.

A 2008 report by an undercover CWI volunteer who worked there detailed abuse and exploitation of the tigers, CWI said.

The temple has also long been suspected of trading in tigers, but it sued some people who made the allegation.

In the current case, the temple's lawyers demanded millions of baht in compensation from the government for taking care of the tigers. The government countered that the temple was not supposed to breed them. The temple had only about 16 tigers in 2007.

This is the most serious attempt yet by the DNP to investigate the temple which, despite calls for a boycott from some quarters, is a fixture on the Thai tourism circuit.

But the temple is both wealthy and influential.

"The abbot is a businessman in robes," Mr Wiek said.

Attempts to reach the temple for comment were unsuccessful.

nirmal@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 26, 2015.
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