Published in Good Weekend/Sydney Morning Herald
CRY OF THE TIGER
On the surface, it’s a heart-warming story of humans riding to the rescue of a critically endangered species. But critics claim there is a dark side to Thailand’s Tiger Temple.
By Andrew Marshall Photos by Patrick Brown/Panos
Three hours west of Bangkok lies a Buddhist temple where monks walk tigers on leashes and tourists play with cubs. Sound unique? It should be. But there are two competing versions of the so-called Tiger Temple. For many tourists, it is a sanctuary. Tigers rescued from taxidermists and traders doze contentedly in the sun. They enjoy a spiritual bond with the monks, who breed the animals in a valiant attempt to conserve a critically endangered species.
For others, including international tiger conservation groups, it is a circus. The tigers are abused, exploited and kept in cramped conditions exacerbated by uncontrolled breeding – for profit, not conservation. Sometimes, they vanish into the very trade from which they were supposedly rescued.
So which is the real Tiger Temple?
Australians should care about the answer: they visit the temple in greater numbers than any other nationality. To mark the Chinese Year of the Tiger, I set out to investigate – and, largely thanks to foreign volunteers who work or have worked at the temple, I unearthed some disturbing facts.
The tigers are not, as the temple’s website says, “hand-reared with compassion by monks”. Instead, say some volunteers, they are punched, kicked and beaten by badly paid and unqualified handlers to keep them subdued for tourists. Living conditions are grim: dozens of fully grown tigers are kept in small cages and never let out. Veterinary care is poor. Money that tourists are told is dedicated to the tigers’ welfare never reaches them.
And even though the temple cannot adequately care for the tigers, it is breeding more. Lots more. The temple promotes itself as a home for rescued tigers, but nearly all of its 72 tigers have been bred on site. The purpose? Money, say the disillusioned volunteers. Petting sessions with tiger cubs alone can earn the temple more than $1000 a day.
“The temple is built on a foundation of lies,” says Sybelle Foxcroft, a former volunteer who runs a Facebook campaign against the temple from her home in Macleod, Victoria. “Australians will be appalled.”
So far, the temple has successfully shrugged off such criticism. There are two main reasons for this. First, the Thai wildlife officials tasked with scrutinising it do nothing. Second, tourists from Australia and other countries either don’t know or don’t care about the true conditions, and continue to pour through its gates.
THE TIGER TEMPLE – formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Forest Monastery – is in Kanchanaburi province, a 30-minute drive from another major tourist attraction, the bridge over the River Kwai. Most visitors arrive in the searing midday heat. The entrance ticket, which costs 500 baht ($A17), is also a legal waiver – a number of visitors and volunteers have been bitten or mauled by the tigers.
“I understand that there are many animals on the temple grounds that have come from the wild and that they may not be tame,” reads the ticket. “I understand that I must exercise caution around these animals, as carelessness may result in personal injury.” To indemnify the temple, visitors must sign and hand the ticket to a guard before they are allowed to enter.
Pacing on short thick chains beneath the trees are a dozen or more tigers, aged from eight months to more than three years old – adults, in tiger terms. Each animal has two or three Thai handlers. Also in the area are at least six foreign volunteers, who shoo away tourists who get too close.
The abbot appears. Phra Acharn Phusit (Chan) Khantitharo, 59, is a short, shaven-headed man with thick glasses. Tucked into his robes is a walkie-talkie. Although he carries a walking stick, he is sprightly, as you might expect from a man who – so the legend goes – cured himself of leukaemia by meditating. “He was a dead man walking,” Richie Stevenson, an Australian volunteer, tells tourists. “He didn’t take any Western medication. He didn’t do chemo or radium. He just meditated his way out of it.”
The abbot’s appearance means it’s time for “walkies”. While the tigers are unchained, tourists are instructed to retreat to a “safety area” – a terrace overlooking an excrement-strewn concrete pen holding four or five tigers. Then we set off in 15-strong groups, each led by a monk with a tiger on a leash. Everyone gets a chance to touch the tiger’s back, while staff and volunteers take photos. The abbot, walking the biggest tiger, comes last.
A few minutes later we arrive at “the canyon”, actually an abandoned quarry with an artificial waterfall and a few small trees. “Okay, folks, grab a seat for us.” It is Stevenson. A 37-year-old electrician from Queensland, he describes himself to me as “a simple man with the greatest love for the temple and the abbot”. The tigers lie down on the canyon floor, where they are chained up. They are lethargic, half-asleep. One suspicion – that they are sedated – is so persistent the temple makes great efforts to deny it. “Basically,” Stevenson tells tourists in the canyon, “our cats have been fed, they’ve been exercised, their metabolism slows down, and they go and have a nice nap for us.”
He then explains the canyon’s “rules and options”. First, everyone must “tiger-proof” themselves by removing hats, bags and sunglasses. “One last thing, folks,” says Stevenson. “No talking to the cats as you pass them or as you’re patting them. These guys are only asleep. You don’t want to wake one up.” Later, he warns: “These animals know how to kill you.”
And the options? Everybody can, for no further charge, pose beside the tigers. There are also what Stevenson calls “special photo” opportunities. For a 1000-baht “contribution” groups can pose with a tiger, with one person holding the tiger’s head on their lap. “You get heaps of photos, heaps of angles,” enthuses Stevenson. Almost everyone pays the extra fee.
Staff lead the tourists into the canyon. Some tourists grin and hold the tigers’ tails. One man tries to lie down beside a tiger, which raises its giant head and growls. Staff jump in and the animal falls quiet again.
SO IF IT isn’t drugs, why are these natural born killers so docile? In a controversial 2008 report, a British group called Care for the Wild International (CWI) said the tigers were “badly maltreated to make them compliant and perform for visitors” and accused the temple of “systematic physical abuse”. The tigers, alleged CWI, were kicked, punched, whipped and struck with sticks and rocks. “Although the Tiger Temple may have begun as a rescue centre,” it concluded, “it has become a breeding centre to produce and keep tigers solely for the tourists’ and therefore the Temple’s benefit.”
Athithat Srimanee, manager of the temple’s foundation, called CWI’s investigators – among them Sybelle Foxcroft – “biased” and denied the tigers were mistreated. “As for pulling the tail andpunching tigers on the head, these are ways to make a tiger obey,” he told The Nation, an English-language newspaper published in Bangkok, in February. “It is similar to training dogs or elephants. Some physical pain is needed to discipline them for pictures.”
Peter Fripp from Coledale, NSW, agrees. He spent two “very positive” months volunteering at the temple last year and saw nothing he’d describe as cruel. “They’re disciplined, but they’re not abused,” says Fripp. “It’s like training a dog.”
But two Westerners, with three years’ recent experience of working at the temple between them, couldn’t disagree more. Sam (a pseudonym) is an ex-volunteer who requested anonymity. Annika Pedersen is a former temple employee who left after filming video footage of what she calls “staff molesting the animals”.
The temple usually has up to a dozen foreign volunteers, who help to sell the special photo packages and reassure visitors about the tigers’ well-being. “We make the temple look good,” admits Sam. But many volunteers are animal lovers who, while thrilled at the chance to work with tigers, are disturbed by their treatment.
“There’s abuse every day,” says Sam. On a recent afternoon in the canyon, staff threw chairs at the tigers, then whipped them with their leashes. “A year ago, the violence was less blatant. Now they do it in front of the tourists. They don’t care.”
Pedersen, 40, from Denmark, tells similar horror stories. Earlier this year, an 18-month-old tiger called Diamond was discovered with an abscess where one of his canine teeth should have been. Alex – who believes somebody smashed out the tooth to sell it – says she had to fight to get Diamond medical attention. “That’s what made me think, ‘I can’t be a part of this any more.’ It opened my eyes.”
This testimony is backed up by another long-time volunteer, Åsa Hellström, who abandoned her veterinary studies in Sweden to assist the temple’s solitary vet. “Tigers are very strong and dangerous predators,” says Hellström. “You need to be firm with them. But there is a very big difference between being firm and abusing them. I think a lot of the handlers are abusing them.”
DURING MY THREE trips to the temple, I saw staff positioning tigers for photos by pulling their tails. The CWI report claims this can cause spinal damage and paralysis. When I put this to Somchai Visasmongkolchai, the temple vet, he bursts out laughing. “You see?” he cries, pointing to tigers chained to the quarry floor. “Which tiger [is] paralysed?”
But another allegation – that tourist money meant for tiger welfare is spent on other projects – is harder to laugh off. Richie Stevenson tells tourists the 1000 baht they pay for “special photos” goes to Tiger Island. “It’s a brand new habitat that we’re building for all our cats,” he says.
The temple’s critics scoff at this, pointing out that Tiger Island, a five-hectare enclosure surrounded by a moat, has been under construction since 2003. In 2005, according to its website, the temple raised its entrance fee from 300 to 500 baht “to speed up construction”. In 2008, a temple brochure claimed the island was 90 per cent complete at a cost of 60 million baht. By now, 65 million baht has been spent, calculates Somchai. I ask him if there’s been any progress since 2008. “It’s 90 per cent finished,” he says.
The finances of Thai temples – even those funded mostly by foreigners – are opaque. This troubled Karen Earp, who previously worked at a British animal sanctuary run by the RSPCA. After volunteering at the temple in March 2006, she wrote a blog praising the abbot as “a remarkable man with boundless compassion for all creatures”. She felt the tigers spent too much time in cages, but believed this would change when Tiger Island opened. Earp calculated that, with 280 visitors a day, the temple could within a year raise the money needed to complete it.
But by 2008, in an update to her website, Earp had changed her tune. “Why are the tigers caged nearly 2 years later?” she asked, pointing out that visitor numbers had “increased dramatically” and that the entrance fee had been raised. “Where is all the money going?”
So, where is it going? The 500-baht entrance fee is spent on animal food, staff salaries, building repairs and “government taxes”, says Somchai. But the revenue generated by “special photos” is apparently spent on an array of projects, many of which have nothing to do with tiger welfare.
According to Somchai, recent outgoings include a donation of one million baht to a revered Thai monk, 100,000 baht to Haiti earthquake relief and 700,000 baht in donations to Thai police and soldiers. Tourist revenues are also helping to construct a one-billion-baht Buddhist ceremonial hall.
But if the temple is struggling to raise enough funds to care for the tigers it already has, as Stevenson laments, why is it breeding more? Its tiger population has tripled in four years. “I think it’s stupid,” says vet assistant Hellström. “They should not breed that many tigers. They don’t need them. They don’t have room for them.” Sam, the volunteer, says 27 adult tigers live in 18 cages measuring about three metres by six metres. The cages are mostly bare, with no toys to enrich the environment. “The tigers are in there 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Sam.
Sybelle Foxcroft believes the temple is turning into a tiger farm. “Why else would you continually breed tigers if you have no cages to put them in?” she says. I ask the abbot almost the same question during a brief audience. He sits on a concrete plinth beneath a tree, while I respectfully crouch at his feet, not unlike a tiger.
The abbot explains that nature is left to its own devices at the temple; not just tigers but all animals are permitted to breed. When a tiger is on heat, he asks with a laugh, “what can I do?” A Thai staff member who is helping to translate adds, “Male and female – if it happens, it happens.”
THIS SUPPOSEDLY laissez-faire attitude to breeding produces even more crowded conditions for the tigers. But it also produces the temple’s biggest money-spinner: babies.
Four times a day, the temple invites groups of up to 10 tourists to private petting sessions with tiger cubs. These sessions generate up to $1300 a day for the temple, calculates Sam. Tourists can also bottle-feed the cubs as part of a four-hour morning program costing 5000 baht. CWI claims the abbot once said that he “likes to have cubs at the temple all the time for the tourists”.
Despite their high value, cubs are also mishandled. Sam saw one staffer carry a fragile newborn by its legs, “the way you’d carry a dead rabbit”, and claims six cubs have died in the past year. Lucrative cub-petting sessions make a mockery of the temple’s promise to one day release tigers “back into the wild, onto a reserve”. Its website admits the tigers are “too familiar with humans” to fend for themselves. Not so “the next generation,” it continues. “They will have little human contact. They will be trained to hunt and feed themselves.” Sam is unconvinced, saying that within weeks of their birth, cubs are taken from their mothers to be fondled by hundreds of tourists.
Sam says the temple currently has 20 cubs; two more tigers are thought to be pregnant. Temple-bred cubs will also be used to stock a sister project: a “tiger resort” near the tourist city of Pattaya. Its foreign manager, who asked not to be named, said another well-known Thai abbot would preside over the resort.
Perhaps the most withering appraisal of the temple’s conservation program comes from the International Tiger Coalition (ITC), an alliance of at least 35 groups dedicated to eradicating the trade in tigers. “[The temple] does not have the facilities, the skills, the relationships with accredited zoos, or even the desire to manage its tigers in an appropriate fashion,” concluded the ITC in 2008. Motivated by profit, the temple made “no contribution whatsoever to wild tiger conservation”.
In fact, the temple does not have a licence to breed tigers – or even to keep them in captivity. This is why, in 2002, the Thai government’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) officially confiscated them. However, the animals were allowed to remain at the temple “temporarily, while waiting for their relocation to a more suitable sanctuary”, explained Damrong Kraikruan, a senior Thai diplomat, in a letter to the ITC last year.
This raises a serious question. Why has the temple been allowed to breed and profit from confiscated tigers for almost eight years? Many blame the DNP, which declined my request for an interview. “It continues to let tiger numbers grow, without question or action,” says Foxcroft.
The DNP has done something else to outrage the temple’s critics. In June 2009, it granted a Thai company a licence to run a zoo on land adjoining the temple. It will be stocked with every surviving subspecies of tiger, as well as indigenous Thai animals such as the marbled cat and leopard cat. “A learning centre about the feline family!” enthuses Somchai. “This is the Tiger World concept.”
Another allegation in the CWI report – that the temple is illegally trading in tigers – is hard to prove. Even foreign volunteers have trouble tracking the tigers under their care. Some don’t stay long enough to confidently identify individual animals, or they get muddled by the tigers’ Thai names.
Requesting anonymity, the webmaster of the online pressure group tigertempletruths.org gave me a list of eight tigers said to have vanished from the temple, allegedly traded. The temple has repeatedly denied all involvement in tiger trading. However, Somchai was evasive when I challenged him about these “missing” tigers.
Take a mature male called Mek, one of the temple’s eight original tigers. Activists claim he disappeared from public view about five years ago. So where is Mek? Twice I ask Somchai this simple question. Twice he doesn’t answer it.
So I ask: Is Mek dead?
“Yes,” replies Somchai. “Death is death.”
“So is that particular tiger gone?”
“Death is death,” says Somchai. “Gone is gone.”
I ask again: So Mek is dead? “Dead is dead, yes,” snaps Somchai. The animal’s death had been reported to the government, he adds.
Mek’s whereabouts have been the subject of rumour ever since the CWI report alleged the tiger had been traded. So why not refute such allegations by simply announcing that the tiger had died? “In Eastern way,” explains Somchai, “when something dies, it’s not big news.”
Mek’s alleged death is news to Fiona Patchett, a student of veterinary nursing from New Zealand. Patchett was a volunteer when Mek, then one of just 12 tigers at the temple, vanished. “He was there one day and the next day he wasn’t,” she says. “I wanted to see him before he left, but the abbot said, ‘No, he’s been loaded up and he’s gone.’ ” Mek had been sent to a tiger farm in neighbouring Laos, the abbot told her.
Patchett was sad but stoic. “At the time I thought it was a legitimate trade,” she says. Later she realised shipping tigers across borders is against Thai and international law. Mek is just one tiger involved in a “clandestine exchange” between the temple and a Laotian breeding facility, alleges CWI.
I ask Somchai about the other tigers on my list. Three more of them are dead. “We report to government,” he says. The next three on the list are “okay”, although Somchai only shows me one of them. And the eighth tiger? His patience is running out; he bats away the hand in which I’m holding my list. “The government knows everything,” he says. “Why make a news? For what?”
ÅSA HELLSTRÖM is “angry and upset” with how the temple treats its tigers. But she believes that, with outside help and proper management of tourist revenue, conditions could be improved. “They need more vets,” she says. “They need to educate the staff. And they need to open up Tiger Island.” Others feel the temple is beyond reform. “It should be shut down,” says Sam.
The temple’s critics won’t be easily silenced. But nor, it seems, do they really have to be while Thai wildlife officials tacitly bless the temple and uncritical tourists continue to visit. And uncritical tour agencies: while Billetkontoret, a big Danish travel firm, now boycotts the temple, many others – including leading Australian companies such as Flight Centre and Qantas Holidays – are still offering Tiger Temple tours.
“Touching a tiger is an amazing experience,” says Patchett. “But I’d like tourists to think about what the animal must go through to give them that experience. Most people who go to the temple don’t care. They just want the photo.”