By Todd Ruiz

Wildlife officials today walked back their threat to remove the animals from Kanchanaburi’s troubled “Tiger Temple,” saying they will instead travel there tomorrow to negotiate a way for them to remain.

With the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation seemingly on a collision course with the intransigent temple – a possibility hailed by its critics and wildlife organizations – the department said today it faces too much resistance to removing the revenue-generating wildlife from the temple and community.

“Officials are prepared to relocate the animals tomorrow, but if we do it without negotiation, there will definitely be conflict,” Nares Chomboon, Wildlife Breeding Department director, told Coconuts.
It’s a reversal from what department chief Nipon Chotibarn announced April 16, when they vowed to “take the wild animals back and relocate them to a suitable habitat” starting at 10am tomorrow.

“Tomorrow we will count how many animals there are and record [that the animals belong to officials]. If the temple can find someone to take responsibility of the animals [sign the document], then they can stay, or if the temple allows us to take them back, the department will promptly relocate them.

Moving all the animals – the tiger population was swollen from 10 to nearly 150 – would take months, he added.

They are concerned about repeating a tense standoff earlier this month when officials backed by soldiers tried removing moon bears from the site. More than a 100 monks and staff blocked government trucks, and the animals were left suffering in the heat until a crane was used to extricate the bears over a wall while a diversion was created.

After years of alleged mistreatment and involvement in illegal trafficking, the temple was targeted for enforcement after former Veterinarian Somchai Wisetmongkolchai, who was legally empowered to care for the animals, separated from the temple after accusing it of selling several animals in December.

Beginning in February, a series of attempted raids and studies were thwarted by the temple’s abbot, who refused to cooperate, grant access or unlock the animals’ cages.

With Somchai no longer at the temple, Nares said the Tiger Temple Foundation will be allowed to keep the animals if it can find a new qualified individual to sign legal responsibility for keeping them under the conditions set by the department, ensuring they receive proper care and supervision by a veterinarian.

The current conflict follows similar contours to what happened in 2001, when the department moved to remove its big cats after finding the temple was keeping seven illegally. Threats were made, the temple resisted and the matter was dropped.

Although the temple’s critics were cautiously optimistic officials would shut down the place, where tourists pay THB600 to pet and take selfies with the animals, officials said today they will allow the act to go on so long as it starts complying with the law.

One change? Nares said the temple was not authorized to collect entrance fees.

“Tourists will still be able to visit the animals but for free of charge,” he said. “The foundation, however, can collect donations for buying tiger food.”

Additional reporting by Prae Sakaowan. Photo: Roger Howard