What Was Thailand’s Tiger Temple Doing With 40 Dead Cubs in Its Freezer?
The discovery of 40 tiger cubs in a freezer at Thailand’s now-infamous Tiger Temple has sent shock waves through the conservation world.
The Buddhist facility, a popular tourist destination, has touted itself as a haven for endangered tigers. But wildlife advocates suspect the temple’s operators were smuggling the dead cubs out of the park and into the black market for wildlife parts, where tiger bones are a high-priced symbol of luxury.
Suspicions about the facility’s role in illegal wildlife trafficking led to a May 30 search by Thai police and wildlife officials.
Soon after, the worst fears of tiger lovers were confirmed. As Thai officials began tranquilizing and transporting out the temple’s 137 live tigers, they found 40 tiger cubs stashed in a freezer.
The temple operators have denied any wrongdoing, saying they were following an internal veterinary policy enacted in 2010.
“Instead of cremation, the deceased cubs were preserved in jars or kept frozen,” the Tiger Temple wrote on its Facebook page on Tuesday. “We have documented all the deaths from 2010 and have photographic evidence of them still being within the Temple. We can only surmise why the rumors of selling tiger cubs started, and it could be that some volunteers have jumped to conclusions after seeing cubs carried out of the general area where our tigers are kept.”
But as the investigation goes on, the explanation seems to be falling apart. On Thursday, Thai police stopped a truck as it was leaving the Tiger Temple. According to Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office, the truck contained two complete tiger skins, about 700 amulets made from tiger parts, and 10 tiger teeth.
In addition to the tiger parts, investigators found a dead bear and a binturong, an endangered bearcat, on the temple grounds.
On Friday, the Tiger Temple again posted on Facebook, professing surprise at these developments. “The recent discovery of the tiger skins and necklaces comes as a shock to us as well as the rest of the world. We are disgusted at this discovery and we don’t condone this. We are looking forward to the authorities bringing the culprits to justice.”
So far, 22 people, including three monks and 17 members of the temple’s association, have been charged with possession of endangered animal parts. If convicted, they face up to four years in prison and $1,100 each in fines.
Shruti Suresh, a senior wildlife campaign officer at the U.K.–based Environmental Investigation Agency, said she hopes the Tiger Temple bust will raise public awareness that far from helping conserve tigers, such tiger farms pose a serious threat to the endangered species. The EIA has estimated that there are more than 7,000 tigers being bred in captivity in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand to supply the global trade in tiger parts.
Tiger bones are sought after for use in tiger bone wine, a concoction featuring bones steeped in alcohol that is thought to have a medicinal value. The drink is also consumed as a status symbol among Asia’s elite.
“These tiger farm facilities masquerading as tiger conservation centers are fueling that demand and putting wild tigers in danger of poaching as well,” Suresh said. “We hope the investigation leads to a total shutdown of the Tiger Temple and pushes officials to investigate other sites suspected of similar exploitative purposes.”
In a joint statement, two United Nations agencies noted that the gruesome findings at the Tiger Temple represent a “tiny proportion” of the extent of an illegal trade in wildlife that is pushing tigers to the brink of extinction.
“Indeed, only around 4,000 tigers are left in the wild,” the U.N. Environment Programme and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said in a joint statement. “Until the illegal trade in wildlife is stopped, we are only likely to see more of these types of situations.”