Tiger Temple

Tiger Temple Topples: Monks Exposed For Trafficking Big Cats On Thailand’s Black Market

International scandal slammed a famous monastery on January 28 when it was exposed for abusing and trafficking endangered tigers.

A documentary film, The Tiger and the Monk, made its debut on Netflix in October 2015. It paints a vivid portrait of Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua Temple, where the wild, free-roaming big cats live at peace, side-by-side with the monks in a furry, striped Utopia.

The film is a feast for the eyes. Thailand’s landscape is lush and serene. The monks are warm and loving, and the colors glow as light filters through the trees during early morning walks. The tigers, huge and powerful, are gentle as lambs. The temple’s website explains how the monastery became an accidental sanctuary for wild animals, beginning with an injured jungle fowl, who attracted all his wild friends. Then there was the injured wild boar, who when healed and released into the wild, came back the next day with a group of about 10 of his family members.

Other animals began to accumulate, and according to the story, all roamed freely around the site.

The temple’s first tiger, an injured cub whose mother had been killed by poachers, showed up in February 1999. The poachers had taken her to a taxidermist and ordered her stuffed, but she survived the ordeal, although her canine teeth were worn or filed down to bloody nubs. She was nursed and recovered somewhat, but died later that summer due to a heart problem.

Not long thereafter, more poaching refugees were brought to the monastery: Two male cubs, just a few weeks old. Then, two more males. Then four females. Soon, there was a whole family of tiger cubs living and growing up with the monks.

Eventually, nature took its course, and the tigers began breeding. The monastery became a sanctuary for free-roaming animals, all living in harmony, and a whole family of friendly tigers, living and playing together, raising their young. It’s like a real-life fairy tale, and a trip to Bangkok for a visit is prime material for any bucket list. And that’s what the public did. They came in droves, from all over the world. The population of tigers on the site grew to 147 individuals.

Alas, reality bites.

National Geographic reports that Sybelle Foxcroft, an Australian wildlife management expert, was the first to have suspicions about what was really going on in Tiger Town. She visited the monastery in 2007 to research tigers in captivity for her master’s thesis. Awakened by a racket in the middle of the night, she ran out to find a distraught mother tiger whose cubs had been ripped away from her.

As the days passed, Foxcroft began to notice a pattern: Female cubs were taken away. Males, who generally behaved better with visitors, remained in the monastery. As the summer wore on and Foxcroft became familiar enough with the tigers to know them by name, she noticed that adult females were vanishing, too. She described the experience in detail to National Geographic.

“I realized then that this was an ongoing operation that involved multiple people, both inside and outside the temple.”

Foxcroft began documenting the conditions at the monastery. Eventually, she was able to compile a video of what she saw.

Foxcroft went on to found Cee4Life, a nonprofit Australian organization dedicated to wildlife preservation and education. She spent nine years researching and documenting the abuse of tigers and other animals at the Tiger Temple. She named this collective documentation “The Tiger Temple Report.” It contains sixteen sections of evidence of illegal wildlife trade conducted inside the temple. To this point, there had only been rumors of the animals being beaten, starved, and housed in concrete cells. In one portion of her videos, Foxcroft pans across a small group of emaciated cows, and directs attention to a large foundation under construction.

“I want you to look into the background there, and you can see a structure. Well, that is called the Buddhist Project, and that is what all the public’s donation money was being poured into. Nothing for the animals.”

With animals like tigers, who look so similar to each other, the use of doppelgangers would be a given. Foxcroft noticed the disappearance of one of the original males in the group, a well-known individual named Mek. She asked a worker what had happened to him, and videotaped the reply that Mek had been injected with something that put him to sleep, and he was loaded onto a truck.

He was replaced by another tiger named Mek, Senior.

Cross-border transfer of tigers for their pelts, bones, teeth, and all other body parts is illegal in Thailand, as well as an international crime. Tigers are an endangered species and protected across 182 nations.

On Friday, January 29, the first five of 147 tigers were removed from the monastery by the Department of National Parks. They are being moved to an appropriate wildlife sanctuary. In numbers of about 5 to 10 per day, the rest of the tigers will follow.

[Photo via Milkovasa/Shutterstock]