When Thai officials cracked open a freezer in the Buddhist monastery’s kitchen on Wednesday, they were greeted by a blast of chill air and an unnerving sight: the bodies of 40 frozen tiger cubs.
The Tiger Temple, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, is far from a typical Buddhist temple. Until wildlife authorities took action this week, more than 100 tigers lived under the monks’ care, attracting tourists en masse as well as controversy.
Though officials were surprised to find the cubs’ corpses during this week’s investigation, the incident had a long-burning wick. The temple’s two-decades-long history is marred by accusations that the monks bred the tigers for profit, hid missing animals and fueled the wildlife trade.
“We don’t know why the temple decided to keep these cubs in the freezer,” Anusorn Noochdumrong, an official with Thailand’s Department of National Parks, told the Associated Press. “We will collect these carcasses for DNA analysis.”
On its Facebook page, the monks denied any impropriety, saying that freezing the bodies was a practice instituted by a veterinarian who had previously worked at the monastery, possibly “to combat the allegations” that the temple had sold dead cubs and tiger parts.
During the raid, however, officials say they nabbed a monk who had loaded his car with tiger parts while attempting to escape the zoo. “Today we found tigers skins and amulets in a car which was trying to leave a temple,” Anusorn told Agence France-Presse on Thursday. Inspection of the monks’ living quarters also revealed a collection of fangs, fur patches and a pair of whole tiger pelts.
The temple opened in 1994, in an area of Thailand close to a wild tiger habitat. It remained free of big cats for its first five years, until February 1999. The monks rescued a tiger cub from an affluent Bangkok resident, after a taxidermist botched an attempt to kill and stuff the animal. Though that cub died shortly thereafter, locals began to deliver other cubs taken from poachers, according to a history of the Tiger Temple published on its website.
“The Abbot welcomed the animals and as he had no previous experience in looking after large carnivores,” the website writes, “he had to learn on the job.”
The abbot was, it seems, a fast learner. The monks became proficient tiger breeders and even better entrepreneurs. By 2016, more than 130 cats had been recorded living at the temple, per a BBC report. Ticket prices run between $17 — for a selfie and a walk with a leashed cat — to the deluxe $140 package that allows visitors to nurse young cubs. Each year, the Tiger Temple makes about $5.7 million in ticket sales, Thai officials told the New York Times.
Controversy came to the Tiger Temple soon after it began accruing animals, as keeping tigers without a permit is against the law in Thailand. The Department of National Parks uncovered the Temple’s violation in 2001, but it did not remove the cats from the monastery.
For large feline predators, tigers are popular captive animals. In fact, although no one knows exactly how many tigers are on the planet — the animals are tough to track, and their habitat is not always well-regulated. By best estimates, tigers in captivity outnumber the endangered wild animals. There are likely more domestic tigers in United States than there are in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Breeding the cats unusually quickly is also possible, but only if mothers are separated from young cubs early on.
That scenario, according to an Australian master’s student named Sybelle Foxcroft, who visited the temple in 2007 for a thesis on captive tigers, occurred at Tiger Temple. She described her second night at the monastery to National Geographic, in an expose published in January: Hearing the roars of a distressed cat, Foxcroft ran to the cage of a mother tiger named Sang Ta Wan. The tiger, according to Foxcroft’s account in National Geographic, “lay motionless on the floor. A man threw her two shrieking four-month-old female cubs into sacks and tossed them into the back of a truck.” Because feeding the cubs fetched the highest ticket prices, according to the National Geographic report, the littlest cats became the biggest sources of revenue for the monks.
These are not the only allegations aimed at the Tiger Temple: The temple’s tigers were sedated and chained so that visitors could take selfies (of the type mocked by the “Tigers of Tinder” blogs, in which online dating hopefuls pose with big cats in their profile photos). Ex-workers and volunteers, according to National Geographic, say that tigers were unhealthy, beaten and kept in too-small enclosures. The magazine also says the monastery’s abbot signed a contract with a commercial breeding operation in Laos to exchange a male tiger with a female tiger. Commercial breeding of tigers is a violation of CITES, an international wildlife trafficking agreement to which Thailand is a party.
Though medicinal use of tiger parts appears to be on the decline, pelts and other body parts can be found on the black market. In some elite circles in China, eating tiger meat may be seen as a status symbol.
The monastery has had its share of odd events and injuries, as well. At the end of 2014, three tigers disappeared, and a veterinarian resigned after handing over the microchips that had been embedded in the animals. Last May, the abbot was walking an adult tiger when the animal spooked and raked the monk along the face and shoulder, requiring stitches.
The accusations against Tiger Temple came to a head in early 2016, when Thai wildlife authorities seized 10 animals from the monastery. The Tiger Temple continued to deny it was involved in any sort of wildlife trafficking. “There have been a lot of recent posts about missing tiger cubs which accuse Tiger Temple of selling them to the black market. This is not true,” the temple wrote on Facebook in March. It added: “the Buddhist way is to keep silent and not engage a fight. However now with a lot more focus on the Temple, it is time to respond.”
Thai officials halted the removal operation when the tiger zoo threatened to take legal action, but some 1,000 police and wildlife authorities returned at the end of May with a court order. Despite the warrant, the scene was chaos, according to the Bangkok Post, with monks feeding the tigers so that sedatives would take longer to work — and, reportedly, releasing some cats into a canyon to keep officials from catching them.
On Monday, a total of three cats were captured. By Wednesday, the authorities were in the process of transferring dozens more when they found the cubs in the freezer. The monks had informed the Thai government about only one of the dead cubs, officials say, and police plan to investigate why the tigers were frozen and how long they had been dead.
The living tigers will be taken to a state-run breeding center.