Friday, January 29, 2016

5 Big Cats Removed Overnight from 'Tiger Temple'

29 January 2016

Monks and volunteers in April 2015 block government vehicles from leaving the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province.
By Teeranai Charuvastra
Staff Reporter

KANCHANABURI — After years of frustrated attempts, wildlife officials last night removed five tigers from the infamous Tiger Temple, a religious site that also operates an illegal commercial tourism business that has won the ire of animal rights activists.

The operation, in which officials from the Department of Wildlife spirited away five tigers during the night, was either long-delayed intervention by committed officials or a temporary measure approved by temple administrators, depending on who tells the story.

“We kept the news secret because we didn’t want reporters to be there,” temple lawyer Saiyood Pengboonchoo said Friday. “Otherwise, people would come out to protest, and officials would have a hard time working. They removed five tigers, as negotiated … We kept it a big secret. We didn’t even tell our own staff. Only five people in the temple knew about it.”

However the move was hailed as a victory and turning point by Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends of Thailand, one of several organizations that have long campaigned against the temple’s commercial use of the tigers.

“This is a good beginning. It’s a victory,” Wiek said upon hearing about the tigers’ removal. “But the important thing is that they have to stop the breeding of tigers, too. Otherwise, now they removed five tigers, but five or six more cubs will be born.”

He said the five big cats are likely being kept at a state-owned wildlife shelter in the neighboring province of Ratchaburi.

Wiek was doubtful the temple was party to the operation, or that it was part of an elaborate plan that would see the big cats eventually returned to the temple.

The operation was said to be led by Adisorn Noochdumrong, deputy director of the Department of Wildlife. He could not be reached for comment. His secretary, Somkid Kiteuawiriya, said Adisorn was attending a summit in northeastern Thailand.

“He’s not here, so we don’t have any clue about it,” Somkid said, adding that he only learned about what happened from media reports.

Since word spread 10 days ago that wildlife officials would again try to wrest away the temple’s approximately 150 tigers, wildlife officials have been reluctant to discuss the “sensitive” issue and have referred reporters to Wiek, with whom they have collaborated.

The department’s previous efforts under successive leadership have all ended in failure, most recently in April 2015, when monks and volunteers at the temple put up stiff resistance to attempts to enter, inspect or remove any animals. The temple was also found to be illegally keeping several protected species of birds and bears.

Those thwarted attempts have come amid allegations of animal abuse and trafficking. Most recently, National Geographic on Jan. 22 published a damning report detailing an alleged “tiger swap” in which the temple sold several animals to a Laos breeding center. The temple says the exchange happened but no money changed hands and plans to sue the magazine.

Attorney Saiyood recently admitted the temple operates outside the law, which forbids keeping tigers without a permit, but said it does so in the best interest of the animals.

Enforcement or Collusion?

Of its agreement with officials, Saiyood said the temple expects to eventually get the tigers back.

He said the temple is preparing to win approval to keep them legally in a commercial zoo. Once a permit is granted, Saiyood said, the temple administration will simply buy the tigers back from the state.

“In our application, we ask for a quota to keep 120 tigers,” Saiyood said. “The department will have to let us keep the tigers. As for the tigers that they already took away, we will buy them back at auction. They don’t want to keep the tigers anyway. It’s very expensive. But they have to do this because it’s the law.”

In the meantime, the department is welcome to remove the tigers – up to an agreed-upon number of 70, he said.

According to the lawyer, the department will evaluate and monitor the five tigers’ condition at their shelter over the next 30-to-45 days before removing more from the temple.

“If they are normal, they will move to remove more. But they won’t take more than 70,” he said. “The rest they let us keep while we file for the zoo permit.”

He said the temple will apply Feb. 5 for the zoo permit and expects it to take up to 60 days to process, Saiyood said.

Wildlife Friends founder Wiek doesn’t believe the temple’s version of events. He’s confident the department will not grant a zoo permit.

“It’s all lies. They won’t get it,” he said. According to Wiek, the land plot bought by the temple has legal issues that would disqualified it from operating a zoo. Plus, he said, the temple would need additional permits from the Department of Religious Affairs in order to turn the temple into a commercial zoo.

He sees nothing wrong with the department’s slow-paced effort to remove the tigers, and praised the temple and the department for keeping the operation a secret to avoid interference.

“They can’t possibly take 10 or 20 tigers at once. They have to be cautious,” Wiek said. “They have to take care of the tigers and tranquilize them. It’s good that they remove only 5 tigers each time, because if a tiger dies in the department’s custody, they would be in big trouble.”
He said he’d like to see removal of tigers continue, every day.


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