When Thai officials cracked open a freezer in the Buddhist monastery’s kitchen on Wednesday, they were greeted by a blast of chill air and an unnerving sight: the bodies of 40 frozen tiger cubs. In any other kitchen in any other monastery, dozens of dead endangered animals in cold storage would be a completely bizarre sight.But the Tiger Temple, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, is far from a typical Buddhist temple. Until wildlife authorities took action this week, more than 100 tigers lived under the monks’ care, attracting tourists en masse as well as controversy.
Though officials were surprised to find the dead cubs during this week’s investigation, the incident had a long-burning wick. The temple’s two-decades-long history is marred by accusations that the monks had bred the tigers for profit, hid missing animals and fueled the wildlife trade.“We don’t know why the temple decided to keep these cubs in the freezer,” Thailand’s Department of National Parks official Anusorn Noochdumrong told the Associated Press. “We will collect these carcasses for DNA analysis.”
The monks denied any impropriety, saying that freezing the bodies was a practice instituted by a veterinarian who had previously worked at the monastery, possibly “to combat the allegations” that the temple had sold dead cubs and tiger parts.
During the raid, however, officials say they nabbed a monk who had loaded his car with tiger parts while attempting to escape the zoo. “Today we found tigers skins and amulets in a car which was trying to leave a temple,” Anusorn told the Agence France-Presse on Thursday. Inspection of the monks’ living quarters also revealed a collection of fangs, fur patches and a pair of whole tiger pelts.
The temple opened in 1994, in an area of Thailand close to wild tiger habitat. It remained free of big cats for its first 5 years, until February 1999. The monks rescued a tiger cub from an affluent Bangkok resident, after a taxidermist botched an attempt to kill and stuff the animal. Though that cub died shortly thereafter, locals began to deliver other cubs taken from poachers, according to a history of the Tiger Temple published on its website.
“The Abbot welcomed the animals and as he had no previous experience in looking after large carnivores,” the website writes, “he had to learn on the job.”The abbot was, it seems, a fast learner. The monks became proficient tiger breeders and even better entrepreneurs. By 2016, more than 130 cats had been recorded living at the temple, per a BBC. Ticket prices run between $17 — for a selfie and a walk with a leashed cat — to the deluxe $140-package that allows visitors nurse young cubs. Each year, the Tiger Temple makes about $5.7 million in ticket sales, Thai officials told the New York Times.
Controversy came to the Tiger Temple soon after it began accruing animals, as keeping tigers without a permit is against the law in Thailand. The Department of National Parks uncovered the Temple’s violation in 2001, but did not remove the cats from the monastery.
For large feline predators, tigers are popular captive animals. In fact, although no one knows exactly how many tigers are on the planet — the animals are tough to track, and their habitat is not always well-regulated — by best estimates tigers in captivity outnumber the endangered wild animals. There are likely more domestic tigers in US than there are in the jungles of south east Asia. Breeding the cats unusually quickly is also possible, but only if mothers are separated from young cubs early on.
That scenario, according to an Australian master’s student named Sybelle Foxcroft, who visited the temple in 2007 for a thesis on captive tigers, occurred at Tiger Temple. She describes her second night at the monasteryto National Geographic, in an expose on the monastery published in January: Hearing the roars of a distressed cat, Foxcroft ran to the cage of a mother tiger named Sang Ta Wan. The tiger, according to Foxcroft’s account in National Geographic, “lay motionless on the floor. A man threw her two shrieking four-month-old female cubs into sacks and tossed them into the back of a truck.” Because feeding the cubs fetched the highest ticket prices, according to the National Geographic report, the littlest cats became the biggest sources of revenue for the monks.
These are not the only allegations aimed at the Tiger Temple: The temple’s tigers were sedated and chained so that visitors could take selfie (of the type mocked by the blogs, in which online dating hopefuls pose with big cats in their profile photos). Ex-workers and volunteers, according to National Geographic, say that tigers were unhealthy, beaten and kept in too-small enclosures. The magazine also says the monastery’s abbot signed a contract with a commercial breeding operation in Laos to exchange a male tiger with a female tiger. If the Tiger Temple was involved in commercial breeding of tigers, that is a violation of CITES, an international wildlife trafficking agreement to which Thailand is a party.