By Edwin Wiek
Special to The Nat
Wildlife trafficking at Wat Pa Luangta Maha Bua in Kanchaburi has now received an official seal of approval
The infamous Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi has been granted an official zoo permit by Thai authorities, signed by the director-general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP).
We at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) are shocked and disgusted by this latest development of an ongoing sickening drama that has continued for so many years.
Since 2001, Wat Pa Luangta Maha Bua has faced numerous allegations of animal abuse and illegal wildlife trafficking, with substantial evidence presented on several occasions by both non-governmental organisations and former volunteers and staff at the temple. Last year authorities acting on information received conducted several raids on the temple and discovered evidence that illegal possession of and trading in wildlife is rampant there.
In early February last year, authorities discovered and confiscated 38 hornbills of various species, kept in pairs and all protected under Thai law. All of these birds were illegally kept and thus confiscated from the temple by authorities. Two Asiatic golden jackals and two Malayan porcupines were also found, but disappeared overnight after they were officially seized by officials. Six Asiatic black bears were found in a pit, without any documents of origin or ownership either. Two African Lions were found hidden behind the temple in a dark cement block. Needless to say, the temple again did not have permits allowing them to legally house these endangered animals.
The raids in February 2015 were triggered when the Tiger Temple’s chief-veterinarian made allegations about the illegal killing and disappearance of several tigers at the temple. These tigers were removed from the temple over a period of time, allegedly to wildlife traders within and outside Thailand, suggesting the temple’s involvement in both the domestic and international illegal wildlife trade. The tigers that disappeared were older males that were deemed less useful to the temple. Adult females produce numerous cute cuddly cubs, which further diminishes adult males’ value for exploitation in tourism at the temple.
Butchered male tigers have a much higher value in the illegal wildlife trade thanks to the bogus belief in traditional Chinese medicine that consuming tiger penis enhances men’s virility. Three of these tigers went missing three months before the February raid. Though temple staff and management knew of the disappearance, they failed to report it to authorities, which is food for thought.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s wildlife preservation act stipulates very clearly that people involved in the illegal wildlife trade cannot obtain a zoo licence, so how is it possible that the Tiger Temple has been granted one? The explanation might be funny if it wasn’t so absurd, so unbelievable: authorities say there is currently a lack of evidence to file charges against the abbot and/or management of the Tiger Temple.
In the meantime, a member of staff who cleans cages at the temple has been accused of all the wrongdoing. It is now claimed that he, all on his own, received all the protected wild animals as donations from “caring” people, taking them in one by one over the last few years as “rescued wild animals”, without anyone else being aware of this. Basically the abbot, other monks and management of the temple were not aware of the existence of any of the over 80 rare and protected animals, including hornbills, jackals and bears, at the temple. The massive 10-metre-high cage with hornbills at the entrance of the temple was probably never noticed by any of them. They also overlooked the six Asiatic black bears that were all immensely overweight. The collection of hornbills was impressive, containing every species seen in the wild in Thailand. All were conveniently paired, something that does not happen when they are rescued. Even if these hornbills were really “rescued”, why did the temple not register them in good faith? Is it because they think they are above the law? Well, in reality it seems they are above the law and have certainly obstructed it on several occasions, including over the disappearance of seized wild animals. They appeared to have exchanged protected tigers from the temple with lions from Laos, thus engaging in illegal cross-border trade, which is against the international treaty of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), to which Thailand is a party.
Yet instead of being taken to court and receiving due penalty, they now are rewarded with a zoo licence, so they can continue the uncontrolled breeding of more tigers. The temple can now also legally trade and purchase more endangered species, further increasing the abusive practices at what appears to many to be a hellhole for animals.
Sadly, we can only conclude that in 2016 wildlife abuse pays off all too well in Thailand.
The WFFT is now considering making a plea to the courts that the law be enforced on this issue, and that the zoo licence be revoked immediately.
Last but not least we would like to ask the Religion Affairs Department under the Ministry of Culture if commercialisation and dubious business practices are now encouraged at temples, instead of practising the teachings of Lord Buddha.
Edwin Wiek is founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand