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Thai authorities raided the Tiger Temple at the beginning of the month after years of complaints from conservationists saying the a Buddhist monastery was guilty of breeding without a license and illegal trade.

The Bangkok temple, which lets tourists pet and pose for pictures with their 143 cubs and adult tigers, claims to be the home to tigers rescued from poachers and dealers and that they breed the animals only for conservations purposes. However, animal activists have had an eye on the temple for years and say undercover investigations prove they are in fact linked to trafficking with the black market.

“I think it’s about time they cracked down on them,” Carole Baskin, CEO of the Florida-based Big Cat Rescue, told VICE News. Thailand’s investigation may be able to prove “once and for all” that large numbers of tigers are ending up on the black market, where its pieces can fetch $50,000 to $60,000, she said.

“There’s way too many cats that are being bred and raised that aren’t showing up in sanctuaries,” Baskin said. “So we know that something really horrible has to be happening to them, and until somebody sheds light on it, it’s never going to stop.”

Unfortunately, authorities have concluded there was no visible abuse after more than 50 wildlife officials and the local religious affairs office checked over 100 tigers in a 3-hour inspection. They did however charge the monks for keeping over 40 rare birds, which were seized.

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The monastery started taking care of tigers rescued from smugglers in 2001. Between 2005 and 2008, Care for the Wild conducted undercover investigations that showed the temple no longer ran as a sanctuary for rescued animals but as a breeding facility without a license.

They also documented that at least 7 tigers disappeared from the temple and 5 magically appeared during the investigation period, even though the exchange or sale of tigers is against the law in Thailand. Further evidence gathered showed that the temple had regular dealings with a tiger farm in Laos, where they sent older tigers to receive younger ones. Investigators found out that names were transferred from one tiger to another one often, probably to hide the large scale of exchange.

Investigators also discovered that the tigers did not in fact roam freely, but they were confined in cages for most part of the day. The cages registered were smaller than the minimum size stated by law and they had no enrichment for the animals.

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During visiting hours, the animals were seen being badly mistreated by staff to get them into ‘photographic positions’. Staff were seen dragging the tigers by their tails and hitting them with sticks.

After the investigation was released, several travel and tour agencies stopped offering trips to the temple, but little else happened.

“Tiger Temple markets itself as this haven of tranquillity where tigers are rescued from poachers to live a happy life,” head of Born Free USA Adam Roberts told VICE News. “The reality is that it’s a zoo at which the tigers are kept in very poor conditions, fed inappropriate food and forced to interact with tourists for photo opportunities.”

According to a volunteer who worked at Tiger Temple, they actively breed the tigers because bottle-feeding is their main attraction.

Activists also claim that the temple doesn’t care about conservation because “all tigers at the Tiger Temple are hybrid tigers that originated from a commercial tiger farm in Ratchburi province. The value to conservation of hybrid wildlife is zero. They don’t have any value for conservation because they don’t boost the gene pool and they can’t interbreed with wild tigers,” founder and director of Wildlife Friends of Thailand Edwin Wiek explained.

According to the monks, the tigers are healthy and living in good conditions and they even started microchipping the animals so authorities can keep track of them.

They even sued conservationists in 2010 for defamation after an article published in the Thai Post accused them of illegal possession, trade and abuse of tigers.

To help end tourism industries that rely on abusing animals, please visit Right Tourism, where you can learn about which places to visit and which places to avoid and why.

As they say, “tourist activities that exploit animals only continue because tourists choose to support them. As a tourist you have a choice – to avoid cruel practices and reward positive ones.”

 
Image by Jaume Escofet

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