Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, better known as the ‘Tiger Temple’, is one of Thailand’s most controversial tourist attractions. The temple, which is located a few hours drive to the west of Bangkok, describes itself as a sanctuary and says the animals kept there are well cared for. However, opponents of the Tiger Temple take a different view. There have been persistent allegations over the years of animal cruelty, illegal trafficking and profiteering at the Kanchanaburi temple.
The Tiger Temple is popular with tourists who are allowed, for a fee, to pet tigers and pose with them for photos. But that could all be coming to an end following the latest series of events at the temple.
February 2015: accusations of illegal wildlife trafficking
Although Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua is best-known for keeping tigers, there are a host of other animals kept in a private zoo within the grounds of the temple. In February, Thai wildlife officials received a tip-off that the abbot of the temple had been buying endangered species for his private zoo. When officials went to the temple in Kanchanaburi to investigate, the abbot denied them entry. When the officials returned with a warrant the next day, the abbot could not be located. Initial investigations revealed that animals previously known to be at the temple were missing.
April 2015: stand-off between monks and wildlife officers
Investigations continued into activities at the Tiger Temple during March. At the beginning of April, wildlife officers in association with the police seized six protected Asian black bears which were illegally possessed by the temple. But there were extraordinary scenes on the day with approximately 100 monks and supporters of the temple blockading the gates to try to prevent the officials from carrying out their duties. Monks at the temple also attempted to stop the vehicles carrying the bears from leaving. Following a tense stand-off, the wildlife officials managed to leave and the bears were taken to a specialist facility in Chonburi.
Thai officials also said that there were discrepancies with the registration and recorded number of tigers at Wat Pa Luangta Bua. Following on from this, wildlife officers stated that all 146 tigers at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi would be moved to wildlife centres in Ratchaburi.
April 2015: temple and officials agree a deal
The investigation came to an abrupt and unexpected end late in April. Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) said they had reached a deal with the monks allowing them to continue keeping the tigers under certain conditions. The DNP released a statement which said:
“The temple should not gain commercial benefit from the tigers without permission from department such as selling tourists admission fees or charging them money to take photos.”
The statement went on to say that under the terms of the deal, the tigers were now regarded as confiscated state assets and were the responsibility of the DNP. However, the temple were still responsible for the costs of looking after the tigers. Any breach of the deal would result in the DNP seizing the animals.
May 2015: abbot of temple mauled by tiger
In late May, the abbot of the temple was mauled by one of the tigers. Initial reports from observers and from photos posted in social media suggested the abbot was badly injured and hospitalised by the attack which occurred whilst the tiger was being led for a walk. The Tiger Temple later played down the initial report and the extent of the injuries claiming the abbot only suffered minor injuries which were mainly sustained when he fell.
The future of the Tiger Temple
It remains to be seen how serious Thai authorities are or whether the Tiger Temple will still manage to operate in the same way it has up until now. It also remains to be seen whether tourists will now vote with their feet and avoid the temple in favour of the other attractions in Kanchanaburi. In theory, the tigers should no longer be exploited for commercial purposes which should mean tourists no longer being able to pay to pet the tigers and pose for photographs with them. Time will tell.