The Uncaged Truth of Thailand's Tiger Temple

Paradise or Peril?

Abbot petting tigers at the Tiger Temple (Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua).
••• Dan Herrick/Getty Images

It took one week to end an almost two-decade long battle between animal activists and the Buddhist monks of the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bu Yannasampanno monastery, better known as the Tiger Temple, in the Kanchanaburi Province of Thailand.

Although government officials had in previous years attempted to investigate allegations of animal abuse and wildlife trafficking, the monks remained obstinate and refused to open their doors for investigation.

They had no choice, however, when the Department of National Parks presented them with a permit to forcibly enter the grounds. 

The ensuing raid, although successful in extracting all of the 137 tigers on the premises, was tragic in that it affirmed the fears held for years by visitors and activists: the place that continually promoted itself as a sanctuary for exotic animals was instead a cover for atrocious abuse and corruption.

Understanding What Happened at Thailand's Tiger Temple

According to the National Geographic News reporting on the crime, the monastery opened its doors to the public shortly after the arrival of its first cubs in 1999. Located just west of Bangkok, tourists flocked to experience the Temple's tigers, whose population only increased over the years. Those who paid the cost of admission, as well as the additional fees to bottle-feed cubs and take selfies with grown tigers, assumed that all profits were used to keep the exotic animals healthy and safe.

However, as the week-long raid earlier this month has shown, previous visions of the exotic animals roaming freely and coexisting peacefully among Temple's staff and visitors was but an illusion upon which the monks relied to generate their reported three million USD yearly income.

According to The Conservation and Environmental Education 4 Life report, allegations of mistreatment were first made by tourists who voiced criticism that the Temple's tigers seemed sedated.

Staff members, most of whom were volunteer workers, also expressed concerns that the tigers were not being given adequate care. In addition to reporting that the tigers were kept in tiny concrete cages, underfed, and physically abused, the workers claimed that the animals lacked proper veterinary attention. Since most of the Temple's volunteer staff had little to no prior wildlife conservation or animal care experience, the monks relied on local veterinarians when the tigers became sick or injured. Their visits, however, were only temporary—the animals' daily care was in the hands of the monks and staffers.

Concerns over the Tiger Temple existed and persisted for years. However, since Thailand is a Buddhist country, government officials remained docile, determined not to confront or offend the revered members of the religious community. As a result, the earliest investigations of the Tiger Temple were conducted instead by wildlife activists organizations. After infiltrating and gathering information covertly, the activists presented evidence that they believed, much to their despair, affirmed fears of animal abuse.

Director of Elephants & Conservation Activities for The Anantara Resorts & Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Chiang Rai, John Edward Roberts, said, “The current zoo licensing system ought to be tightened up, currently it is in the hands of the Department of National Parks whose priority is perhaps native species conservation rather than welfare of, say, hybrid tigers which have no conservation value.

Curiously there is no licensing system for the ownership and operation of elephants and elephant camps (even though they are a native species and of conservation value) which may be something else to be looked in to.”

Additionally, wildlife activists accused the abbots of black market activity, claiming that the inordinate increase in the tiger cub population, reflected in the timeline below, was the result of illegal breeding with the intent to traffic endangered species. It appeared that the abbots were practicing speed breeding, which involved removing cubs from their mothers in order to force the adult female back into heat. Using this system, the temple welcomed two litters every year - a statistic that defies the natural gestation of wild tigers that only bear one litter every two years.

The monks denied their involvement in the black market repeatedly, claiming that the breeding cycle reflected their attempts to accommodate tourists who preferred interacting with cubs rather than observing adult tigers.

Suspicions only amplified when three adult tigers, all previously implanted with microchips, seemingly disappeared from the grounds within the course of days. The tigers' disappearance was the final straw, snowballing into a timeline of events that culminated in the Tiger Temple raid earlier this month. This timeline, provided below, illuminates the attraction's dubious history and the courage of those who remained vigilant against its corruption.

History of Abuse

February 1999: The first cub arrived at the Buddhist monastery Wat Pha Luang Ta Bu Yannasampanno, with seven more to follow over the course of the year. According to the Tiger Temple, these first cubs had been brought to the monastery's doorstep after they were found either sickly or orphaned by poachers. The cubs' origins have never been confirmed.

The abbots decide to introduce their tigers to the public. Visitors and volunteers from around the world flock to the monastery to play, pet, and take pictures with the exotic animals. Revered by the media, the monastery quickly became known as the Tiger Temple. 

2001: The Thai Forestry Department and Department of National Parks (DNP) seized the tigers from the monastery, as monks neglected to declare that they were housing endangered species. Although the animals were now technically the property of the DNP, the abbots were permitted to keep the Tiger Temple open but forbidden to breed or trade them. The monks ignore this order and breed the animals.

2003: The Tiger Temple monks begin construction of "Tiger Island," a large enclosure within the monastery grounds that the monks claimed would both improve the animals' quality of life and better prepare them for rerelease into the wild. Although never completed, the monks maintained that a considerable portion of their profits were allocated to improving "Tiger Island" facilities, up until the forced closure.

2005: As eyewitness accounts of mistreatment within the Tiger Temple perpetuated, wildlife activist organization Care for the Wild International (CWI) launches an investigation. Representatives begin infiltrating the grounds in search of evidence to support their suspicions of animal abuse and illegal wildlife trade. 

2007: Eighteen tigers are reported to be living on the monastery grounds.

2008: CWI releases their official report of their findings, using, among their own observations, testimonies from the volunteers and workers gathered between 2005 and 2008 as well as information about the obtained from state officials such as the Department of National Parks. Entitled “Exploiting the Tiger: Illegal Trade, Animal Cruelty and Tourists at Risk at the Tiger Temple,” the document formally accuses the Temple of animal abuse and illegal trafficking. Despite its support, no official action is taken following the report's release.  

2010: The number of tigers at Tiger Temple swells to over 70.

2013: Continued media concerns about the welfare of the tigers at Tiger Temple prompts to CWI return to the Tiger Temple to see if anything has changed. Their second “Tiger Report” maintains their accusations of animal cruelty, emphasizing welfare and safety issues they observed while on the grounds.

December 20, 2014: One adult male tiger goes missing.

December 25, 2014: Two more adult male tigers go missing.

February 2015: After resigning from his post, Somchai Visasmongkolchai, the Temple's veterinarian, discloses the shocking truth about the missing tigers: the microchips were cut out. He hands them over to Addison Nuchdumrong, Deputy Director General of the Department of National Parks. The DNP also discovers thirteen more tigers were missing microchips, as well as the carcass of an adult tiger in the kitchen freezer.

January 2016: Cee4Life, an Australian non-profit organization, releases new evidence surrounding the disappearance of the three male tigers in their “Tiger Temple Report,” hoping to illuminate the Tiger Temple’s participation in black market trade of tigers and tiger parts, which they claimed could be traced back to 2004. The most incriminating of this evidence came from surveillance images showing vehicles entering the front gate after the Temple had closed, driving towards the section where most of the tigers were kept, and returning back to the front gate to exit the grounds. The report also includes a transcript of Temple staff members admitting that they knew that intruders were present the night the tigers went missing. 

June 2016: After years of the monks denying them entry, the DNP acquires a court order permitting a team of government officials and wildlife experts to enter the Tiger Temple forcibly. Over the course of the week, the team successfully extracts 137 tigers, averaging about 20 tigers a day.

The team discovers the carcasses of forty tiger cubs in the freezer and twenty more preserved in formaldehyde. A volunteer at the Temple stated that the cubs’ birth and death had been reported and that, in the face of trafficking accusations, the monks were holding their bodies as evidence for the authorities. 

In addition to rescuing the animals, officials found physical evidence of a trafficking operation in the form of a mountain of contraband, consisting of tiger pelts, teeth, as well as sixty seven lockets enclosing a photo of head Abbot, Luangta Chan, made of tiger skin.

The Fate of Tiger Temple

The monks remained stubborn to the very end, with rumors of some feeding the tigers right before the experts administered sedatives used to aid the extraction, as well as others releasing animals into the canyons to make them more difficult and dangerous to remove. One monk even tried to flee the scene in a truck carrying tiger skin and fangs, but officials were able to detain him. 

Despite the atrocities that the raid unearthed, the public can finally find some closure in knowing that the exotic animals are now safe and that three of the Temple's personnel, two of them monks, face criminal charges. The tigers will be transported to government breeding centers, since their past existence would not permit them to live safely in the wild.