As the Tiger Temple tells it, the first cub had been ordered to be stuffed like a trophy after her mother was killed by poachers. But she escaped her fate and arrived at the Thai monastery in February 1999: traumatized, battered and barely able to eat — but alive. In the care of the temple’s monks, she found her new home.
From there the tiger population ascended to 147 tigers in 2015, and along with it the sanctuary’s reputation and revenue from visitors. It boasts a vast range of programs, including hands-on opportunities to bottle-feed the cubs and take selfies with them. But for years the temple has fought intense criticism: Two major reports have stated that the temple, also known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, has made no contribution to conservation.
Even more strikingly, incidents of abuse have surfaced for years. Caretakers were squirting urine in the tigers’ faces to discipline them, an act of “extreme aggression,” according to a 2008 study by Call For The Wild International. A disturbing video of a tiger being punched in the face was posted to Facebook on Jan. 8, 2015, by visitor Pranay Dalmia, who also said that he saw a tiger being dragged by the tail. Tiger Temple wrote in the comments section, “I will be taking this to the management as we discussed on the day and hopefully this sort of behaviour will be stopped completely.”
Equally as troubling, evidence of the temple’s connections to the black market and illegal breeding was brought to light by a January 2016 study by NGO Cee4life. Veterinary records note at least four of the tigers were “wild caught” and two were “imported from Laos.” Sybelle Foxcroft, one of the investigators behind the report, alleged that the temple engages in “speed breeding” to inflate the number of cubs for tourists to play with, she told National Geographic’s Sharon Guynup. The practice removes cubs from their mother immediately to put females in heat again, so that they can bear up to four times the number of litters that wild tigers have.
For years Thailand’s Department of National Parks has publicly battled the temple to try to remove the tigers. In April 2015, officials investigating three missing tigers also discovered six protected Asian bears being held illegally. In a dramatic standoff, the monks blockaded the monastery’s entrance, but a 70-person team managed to enter and hoist the bears away by crane, according to the Bangkok Post.
Buddhist customs have made it difficult to remove the animals, Adisorn Nuchdumrong, deputy director general of the DNP, told National Geographic. So the Tiger Temple still operates.
On Tuesday, the monastery was fielding other concerns on its Facebook page — this time about the tigers not having enough access to exercise areas. “Once again it seems that misinformation about our enclosures and rotation is being spread across the internet,” the temple wrote.