Written by Ryn Jirenuwat and Richard C. Paddock
Eighty-six tigers that were seized three years ago from Thailand’s notorious Tiger Temple over concerns that they were being mistreated have died in the government’s care, Thai officials said Monday.
That leaves only 61 surviving tigers from the 147 that were taken from the sprawling Buddhist temple compound, an unlicensed zoo that promoted close contact between tourists and tigers, including feeding the animals by hand and taking photos with them.
Officials from Thailand’s Department of National Parks said that the main cause of the deaths was laryngeal paralysis, an upper respiratory condition that interferes with breathing. Canine distemper was a secondary cause of death, and the stress of the tigers’ relocation was also a factor, they said.
Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, said the death of so many tigers could have been averted. He said he had advised the department at the time to take preventive steps, such as placing cages farther apart so that diseases could not spread easily among the tigers.
“It is a very sad story,” he said. “I warned them about it at that time. It was avoidable, but they wouldn’t listen.”
For years, animal rights groups criticized the Tiger Temple for allowing tourists to handle the animals, a business that brought in $5.7 million a year for the temple.
Critics also contended that the temple was a front for smuggling tiger parts for the illegal but lucrative trade in so-called traditional medicine in China and Vietnam.
This concern was borne out during the 2016 raids, when the authorities arrested three monks attempting to smuggle more than 1,600 tiger parts out of the compound, located in Kanchanaburi province, about 100 miles west of Bangkok. The authorities also found 60 dead tiger cubs in jars and a freezer.
No one at the temple was ever prosecuted for illegally possessing tiger parts or operating the compound as an unlicensed zoo, activists said.
The tigers’ removal turned into a highly public spectacle as monks and their supporters blocked the main gate at one point to prevent park rangers from entering the compound to seize the tigers.
The operation to remove the tigers lasted several days and involved 30 veterinarians, 60 park rangers and hundreds of other personnel. Each tiger was sedated and carried out by stretcher before being driven by truck to one of two government facilities.
The parks department built new cages to house the tigers, but they were not as large as those at the temple and were placed close together, facilitating the spread of disease.
And unlike the temple compound, the government facilities did not initially provide enrichment activities for the tigers, or large enclosures where the tigers could have a chance to move around freely, adding to their stress.
For months, the Department of National Parks had dodged questions about the welfare of the tigers and reports that many of them had died.
In a November interview with The New York Times, the director of Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office, Kanjana Nitaya, acknowledged that some tigers had died, but declined to say how many.
“We are taking the best care of the tigers we can provide,” she insisted. “They are the tigers under the spotlight, so we take good care of them.”
On Monday, the parks department’s deputy director-general, Prakit Vongsrivattanakul, put the death toll at 86, but suggested that the government was not responsible.
Many of the tigers were inbred, he said at a news conference. He also asserted that some were already suffering from canine distemper — a disease that is typically found in domesticated dogs but that can spread to tigers — when they arrived at the two facilities.
“The tigers were infected before they arrived because the two facilities are far away from each other, and tigers in both facilities died in a similar time frame and with similar symptoms,” he said.
Tanya Erzinclioglu, an animal welfare activist and British national who helped care for the tigers for six years at the temple, said she was devastated when she witnessed the arrest of the three monks, who possessed tiger pelts, tiger teeth and 67 tiger-skin lockets containing photos of the temple’s abbot.
After leaving the temple, she founded the nonprofit group For Tigers. The organization has raised money to buy nutritional supplements for the tigers and build larger enclosures for them.
At the time of the raids, she advocated leaving the tigers at the temple and having the parks department take over their care and management, a plan the government rejected.
She said that the tigers were in good health when they left the temple, but that many had trouble adjusting to the new conditions, including a change in diet that caused some of the cats to stop eating altogether.
She said that she offered the parks department the complete health records for all the tigers, but that officials declined to accept them.
“The deaths could have been prevented if the raid and subsequent removal of the tigers had been managed in a better way,” she said. “The tigers were the ones who got in the middle. It was handled poorly, and the tigers suffered for it.”