BANGKOK, Thailand — It’s among the dodgiest attractions in Asia: A so-called holy site where tourists pay to spoon with apex predators.
Sound like a bad idea? It is. The “Tiger Temple,” a monastery-cum-wildlife park in western Thailand staffed by orange-robed Buddhist monks, is roundly condemned by conservationists. It’s more of a hardcore petting zoo than a place of worship.
And its over-cuddled star attractions live in stark captivity instead of their natural jungle habitat — all to generate cash from backpackers eager for extreme wildlife selfies.
Now, after two decades of operation, the infamous temple is finally losing its tigers. Thai authorities have denied the temple’s attempt to register as a zoo. Since the end of January, wildlife officers have sedated a total of 10 tigers and hoisted them by crane onto trucks bound for government-run shelters.
This will continue at a steady clip: Five tigers confiscated per month, says the temple’s lawyer, who spoke to the Thai news outlet Khaosod. Officials are expected to keep this up until all 140-plus tigers are removed.
Authorities have long shown reluctance to shut down the Tiger Temple even as it drowns in scandal. For starters, tending to more than 100 giant carnivores is costly and, in government care, these expenses won’t be offset by tourist dollars.
Sending them into the wild is not an option. By the temple’s own admission, the tigers “have been hand-raised in captivity and lack the necessary skills to survive in the jungle.”
Worse yet, the temple has aggressively resisted intrusion. Last year, when officials wielding assault rifles raided the temple on suspicion of wildlife trafficking, monks rallied locals to block their path. (And in Thailand, officers with guns smacking Buddhist monks out of the way is generally not condoned — even if the monks are engaging in mischief.)
The temple is accused of a host of offenses from illegal breeding to housing the tigers in sub-par conditions. A recent National Geographic exposé gathered evidence suggesting that the temple has even sold tigers on the black market.
But the temple’s main source of income (which is roughly $3 million per year, according to National Geographic) is cash forked over by tourists. They come in droves, usually via organized tours, spending up to $200 to cuddle with tigers or feed cubs milk from a baby bottle.
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A senior wildlife advisor with World Animal Protection, Jan Schmidt-Burbach, previously told GlobalPost that tigers are made docile when they’re “forcefully separated at an early age from their mothers and often are forced into submission by cruel training so that they will obey their handlers and not cause injuries to people.”
The Tiger Temple’s disreputable conduct is well documented. But no amount of scandal seems to keep tourists away. In January, even as the government’s campaign to confiscate tigers filled the press, GlobalPost observed a parking lot full of tour buses outside the temple, located in the far-flung province of Kanchanaburi.
“We know that most people looking for a wild animal encounter want to do so because they love animals,” Schmidt-Burbach said. “They’re simply unaware of the cruelty that goes on behind the scenes.”