In a shocking investigative report published today on NationalGeographic.com, Sharon Guynup detailed an illegal wildlife operation at the Tiger Temple, a monastery in Thailand. The monastery was profiting from a decades-long practice of unsanctioned breeding and trading tigers, now exposed through Guynup’s extensive reporting as well as the aid of a report from Australian nonprofit Cee4life, involved “speed breeding” cub, cutting out ID chips from registered tigers that had disappeared, and selling tigers on the black market. We talked to Guynup about how she uncovered this illegal trade and what’s next for the tigers and their traders.
How has the Tiger Temple broken the law?
There were veterinary documents that showed the origins of four of the first eight tigers that arrived in 1999 or 2000 were listed as “wild caught.” In other words, the temple violated national laws by not declaring and getting permits for them. In 2001 the government ordered the Tiger Temple not to breed tigers, not to make money off the tigers, and not to trade tigers. Fast forward to today, where there’s a minimum of 147 tigers — and a tourist industry that is making the temple millions.
You also exposed a potential illegal tiger trade that goes outside the temple walls. What did you find?
Here are the facts:
I’ve had numerous, numerous stories from volunteers and staff about the disappearance of cubs. (And note that I didn’t use any source that didn’t have at least two other sources corroborating.) Tigers that disappeared were often “replaced’ by cubs that were then given their names. They might be five years too young, but they’re treated as the same tiger.
Then we have a wildlife trade document that shows a swap of a male tiger for a female tiger with a tiger breeder in Laos. The document is signed by the tiger farm’s abbot and the monk I interviewed on tape.
We have a surreptitiously recorded conversation between a high-level advisor and the temple’s abbot and the former veterinarian, where the abbot says they had a standard procedure of killing the tigers before taking them out of the temple.
Three male tigers, microchipped and registered with the government, disappeared. The temple veterinarian responsible for registering these tigers resigned and came forward with the microchip evidence. The government went in, scanned all the microchips and they discovered 13 tigers without microchips and a tiger carcass in a freezer.
Can you explain the “speed breeding” that was practiced at the temple?
In the wild, cubs stay with their mothers 18 months to two years, and the mother will not go into heat before that. At the temple, tigers have been pulled away from their mothers as young as two weeks. Once you take the cubs from a mom, she very quickly goes back into heat. When that happens, a female could have two litters a year — with three to four cubs in each litter — rather than one every two years.
How did you come to this story?
I published a tiger book with photographer Steve Winter (called Tigers Forever) that came out in November 2013. For the book, we looked briefly into the Tiger Temple, where Steve heard rumblings that there was illegal trading going on. People have suspected it for some time, but the Thai government has never done an investigation, and there wasn’t enough hard evidence at the time. Sybelle Foxcroft (who heads the nonprofit Cee4Life) came to me early in the fall and said that there was evidence coming her way from sources in Thailand. She handed over what she collected during her nine-year investigation to both us and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation — the agency that oversees captive wildlife. She had a range of evidence — documents, video, audio. We took that and furthered our own investigation, verifying those sources and finding new ones.
What did Sybelle Foxcroft find?
Through visits to the temple, volunteers, interviews, and by using stripe ID software on photographs and video, she has been able to identify 281 tigers that have been in the temple. And those were only the ones she was able to document. That’s a minimum. When the government went in back in April, they counted 147 tigers. There are too many tigers missing to be accounted for by deaths alone. In-captivity tigers usually live from 16–22 years, so there’s too many tigers missing.
What happens now?
Some wonderful things are developing. The Department of National Parks is on the verge of going in there and starting to remove the tigers. They’ve been trying to get in since last April, but the temple has been putting up some serious roadblocks. This is a delicate maneuver because it is a Buddhist temple and there is a tradition of bringing hurt or abandoned animals to temples. As of last week, two government veterinarians weren’t allowed in to do standard microchip scans. Then, guards were posted at the front gates. When I had a conference call two or three nights ago with the temple, they denied that tigers were even going to be leaving. When I called the head of the National Parks Department, he said if the temple keeps stonewalling, they will be getting a court order or assistance from the army to go in and take the tigers.
Let me give you additional good news: Within the next two to three weeks, the Department of National Parks will be requesting that the investigation be turned over to the Royal Thai Police. They’ll be investigating wildlife trafficking and other crimes, including possible money laundering.
What’s the bigger picture here?
This isn’t simply about one temple in Thailand. Wildlife trafficking is international criminal activity. Crime syndicates have added wildlife to their crime portfolio because it’s a low-risk, high-profit endeavor. Furthermore, captive breeding operations are growing across Asia — and feeding those animals into the illegal trade puts all wild tigers in the cross-hairs. This is about whether wild tigers will roam Asia in the next decade.