Thai Officials Battle Buddhist Monks Over Tigers’ Fate

SAI YOK, Thailand — Saira Tahir, a London lawyer, waved a bamboo pole with a plastic bag affixed to the end high in the air. A 200-pound tiger leapt and swatted it like a house cat batting a string toy.

For her $140 premium admission, Ms. Tahir also bathed a tiger, bottle-fed a cub and posed for a photo with a tiger’s head in her lap.

“It’s a surreal experience being so close to them,” she said. “Even with the tiger’s head in your lap, you can feel the energy. It’s not something you do every day.”

Part Buddhist monastery and part petting zoo, the Tiger Temple in western Thailand has long been the bane of conservationists and animal rights activists who accuse it of abuse and exploitation even as it offers tourists an Edenesque wildlife fantasy.

Now, after complaints of trafficking in endangered species, the government is trying to shut down the attraction. But there are two major obstacles: the temple, which has gone to court to block the closing, and the tigers. What do you do with nearly 150 carnivorous cats raised in captivity?

The government began removing the tigers this year but was ordered to stop after the lawsuit was filed in February. Until the case is resolved, the fate of the tigers is mired in a legal standoff that pits wildlife officials, conservationists and Thailand’s military government against a wealthy tourist enterprise backed by influential Buddhist monks.

The Tiger Temple, in rural Kanchanaburi Province near the Myanmar border, started collecting animals 15 years ago with an act of charity. Villagers took an injured tiger cub to the local abbot, who agreed to care for it. Word spread, and soon there were six tigers.

“We built this temple to spread Buddhism,” said Supitpong Pakdjarung, a former police colonel who runs the temple’s business arm. “The tigers came by themselves.”

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The tourists came next. Today, the temple takes in $5.7 million a year from ticket sales, wildlife officials say, and receives millions more in donations. A standard ticket, about $17, entitles a visitor to walk a leashed tiger and pose with a chained tiger.

The 15 or so monks who live on the grounds have little to do with the tigers beyond occasionally posing with them for tourists. But a Buddhist atmosphere is part of the pitch. The temple promotes itself as a place where tigers betray their wild nature to coexist with humans in Buddhist harmony.

“We can live together peacefully because of kindness,” Mr. Supitpong said.

Some monks and staff members believe that certain tigers are reincarnated monks or relatives. Mr. Supitpong said that through meditation, monks had come up with dietary solutions to repair genetic defects from inbreeding.

“It is a spiritual connection,” he said.

The Buddhist imprimatur also makes the temple a powerful adversary in its legal battle with the government. In Thailand, the moral authority of monks rivals the secular authority of the law.

“They have the power to say right or wrong in terms of morality,” said Surapot Taweesak, a scholar in philosophy and religion at Suan Dusit Rajabhat University in Bangkok. “This makes people listen and not dare to argue or debate with monks for fear of being sinful.”

The government has ordered the temple to stop breeding tigers, charging fees to tourists and letting visitors feed tigers, officials say, but the temple has refused.

“The monks have the attitude, ‘I am over the law,’ ” said Teunchai Noochdumrong, the director of Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office. “They say because they are monks, they have the right to take care of all the animals in that area.”

The abbot, Phra Vissuthisaradhera, is “not a monk,” Ms. Teunchai said. “He’s a criminal.”

Mr. Vissuthisaradhera, who was attacked and clawed on the face last year by his favorite tiger, declined to be interviewed.

For years, the temple has faced allegations of misconduct. Recently, a handler was caught on video punching a tiger in the head.

Mr. Supitpong acknowledges that staff members sometimes have to strike the tigers to distract them from focusing on tourists as prey. “We have to hit them so we can change the tiger’s mood at the moment,” he said.

Charges of tiger smuggling date to at least 2008, when the British group Care for the Wild said the temple was illegally trading tigers with a farm in neighboring Laos.

Last year, the temple’s veterinarian resigned and reported that three tigers had vanished from the temple. He handed over three microchips that he said had been removed from the tigers; such chips are used to track endangered animals.

An Australian organization, Cee4life, claims that 281 tigers have been born at the temple over the years and that natural deaths alone could not account for today’s population, which stands at 138, not counting the 10 already removed by the government. The organization also presented evidence that some of the temple’s first tigers had been caught in the wild and that others had been brought later from Laos.

The temple’s business success has inspired dozens of other operators of unlicensed zoos to offer tourists close contact with rare animals, said Edwin Wiek, the founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.

The animals they breed are unwanted once they mature, Mr. Wiek said, contributing to Thailand’s role as a global hub for illegal trafficking in endangered animals.

Tiger parts are in high demand in Asia, particularly China, for use in traditional medicine. Tiger bone can fetch as much as $168 a pound, and tiger penis soup goes for as much as $320 a bowl.

At the Tiger Temple, only tigers under age 4 — there are 16 of them now — are brought out for tourists. Larger tigers, which can be careless about the rules of interspecies harmony, are retired to cages.

After the veterinarian’s accusations, the government revoked the temple’s permission to keep tigers. The temple lacks documents proving ownership, so wildlife officials contend that the tigers belong to the government.

Temple officials deny abusing the tigers or trading in tigers or tiger parts. They lack ownership papers, they say, because most of the tigers were born at the temple.

Mr. Supitpong said that the three tigers suspected to be missing were still on the premises, and that he had no knowledge of any microchips being removed.

During a raid last year, government officials also found eight hornbills and six Asian black bears, also protected species. The temple said it was the legitimate owner of those animals, too, but lacked the documents proving it, Ms. Teunchai said.

When wildlife officials tried to seize the animals last year, protesting monks and temple supporters blocked the main road to the temple. Officials circumvented the protest by driving a crane to the side of the temple and hoisting the bears over a 12-foot wall.

Mr. Supitpong says the temple earns $3 million a year in ticket revenue, about half what the government says. Most of the donations go toward the construction of a $29 million temple that is expected to be completed in 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. The temple will be one of Thailand’s largest.

“We have received all the funds by the tigers’ virtue,” Mr. Supitpong said. “In the past we called it ‘monks feed tigers.’ But now it’s ‘tigers feed monks.’ ”

There are about 2,000 captive tigers in Thailand, but most are a mix of Bengal tigers, a type that is native to the Indian subcontinent, and Indochinese tigers. Only an estimated 189 Indochinese tigers — the subspecies native to the region — remain in Thailand’s forests.

The crossbred tigers are of no value in protecting the species as a whole, conservationists say.

While the temple tigers are not domesticated — their behavior can be unpredictable, and there have been several attacks on tourists and staff members — they are not wild, either, having been raised in captivity and unafraid of people. If the Tiger Temple is shut down, the tigers cannot simply be set free in the jungle.

The 10 tigers removed by the government were taken by truck to a government center, the Khao Prathap Chang Wildlife Breeding Center, in neighboring Ratchaburi Province, where each has a 430-square-foot cage equipped with a concrete pool the size of a large bathtub. The cages, unlike those at the temple, have no access to an enclosure with grass and trees.

Temple officials insist that tigers are better off at the temple.

“In Thailand, this is the best place for them,” said Tanya Erzinclioglu, a volunteer coordinator.

But Banpot Maleehuan, the government center’s director, said ending the tigers’ close contact with people had already been good for them.

“They have been here two months now, and they are becoming real tigers,” he said. “A tiger is a tiger, not a pet. They have to live their nature.”