Conservation News: Tiger Temple, Ivory Ban, and Wildlife Tourism

Animal Abuse at Tiger Temple

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One of the tigers seized on June 1, Photo By: Dario Pignatelli

Monastery and popular tourist attraction, Thailand’s controversial Tiger Temple has been the focus of allegations of animal abuse and trafficking for 15 years. Last week, authorities planning to remove all 137 tigers held at the temple raided the place.

Formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, the monastery’s tiger attraction gained worldwide attention for where visitors could pet, feed, bathe, and walk the big cats on leashes, taking pictures along the way. Over the years, it has become a gold mine, bringing in an estimate of three million dollars annually.

Conservation organizations and former temple workers have accused the monks of keeping the cats in jail-like enclosures, feeding them poorly, and physically abusing the animals. Critics also accused the temple of trafficking endangered species, violating Thai Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act and CITES, an international treaty, but the monks have rejected the accusations, saying they have done nothing wrong.

Now, with new allegations of abuse, criticism of the temple escalated in recent months and action quickly followed. On Monday, Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation began removing the tigers. Two days later, officials tranquilized and removed six of the tigers that had been sent loose in the temple’s kitchen facilities. After investigating a tip from a temple volunteer, authorities were stunned to find an industrial-size freezer filled with 40 frozen tiger cubs, all one to seven days old. Adisorn Nuchdumrong, the wildlife department’s deputy director, says that the cubs were dead for no more than two days. To date, 20 more were found for a total of 60 tiger cubs.

Tiger births and deaths are supposed to be recorded with government authorities, but Tuenjai Nuchdumrong, head of the department’s conservation office, mentioned that no cubs have been reported or shown at the temple for months. She concludes that the monks have been secretly breeding the tigers which is against the law.

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Photo By: Molly Ferrill

Then, on Thursday, authorities arrested monk Jakkrit Apisuthipangsakul, the abbot’s secretary, for trying to leave the temple with two tiger skins, ten tiger teeth, and a thousand amulets that contained small pieces of tiger skin. Two devotees and two months were also taken into custody as accomplices, and along with Jakkrit, all were charged with possession of endangered species products. By Friday, five were charged with wildlife trafficking.

These latest developments raised more questions about the treatment of tigers, fueling activists’ claims that the government has not moved quickly enough to protect the animals. Although the tigers were kept by the monastery, they belong to the state.

Despite the increasing pressure, shutting down the temple has been a complex task because of its popularity and because legal intervention at the temple is a sensitive issue in a devout Buddhist nation.

Adisorn noted that it was the government’s plan to remove tigers in batches of 30 to 40 a night, until all of the animals were relocated to government facilities. However, only eight were seized when temple staff unchained a dozen tigers where tourists were still present, according to Suppakorn Patumrattanathan, head of the department’s health division. Though no one was injured, the wildlife department filed a complaint with allegations that the workers were trying to harm government officials and were endangering the public.

By the end of Thursday, 102 tigers were moved to government facilities and Adisorn expects the operation to be completed by Saturday.

It all began in 2001, when the wildlife department discovered seven tigers in the monastery. Temple’s abbot and spiritual leader, Phra Acham Phoosit (Chan) Kantitharo lacked the proper permits to hold the endangered animals, “so we seized [ownership of] the tigers,” noted Adisorn. But at the time, the department lacked the facilities and the knowledge to care for the tigers, so the monastery was allowed to continue to keep the cats with orders not to breed or make money money from them.

However, the monks ignored government’s orders and the department turned a blind eye. Soon, the venue grew into a lucrative tourist hot spot and by 2015, the tiger population grew to 147.

In December of 2014, three adult male tigers vanished, despite being microchipped and registered with the government. A 16-month investigation led by local police did not produce any charges. Other pending cases include unlawful possession of six Asian black bears, 38 rare hornbills, and other birds that were later seized in 2015. Two Asiatic golden jackals and two Malayan porcupines were seen during an inspection but later disappeared before officials were able to seize them.

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Phra Acham Phoosit (Chan) Kanthitharo, the monastery’s abbot, pets two cubs. Photo By: Steve Winter

Since then, the abbot has fought to keep possession of the tigers. He sued the wildlife department, unsuccessfully, for the cost of caring for tigers the monastery were not supposed to have bred. Additionally, he barred the temple’s gates several times when federal teams and authorities arrived to take the tigers and other endangered species in the past.

A report by the nonprofit Cee4life alleged that the temple’s tigers had been moved in and out since at least 2004. It included accounts by former temple staff members and volunteers about disappearing cubs and adult tigers. Audio and video recordings released suggested that the temple’s abbot was aware of, and was possibly directing, a black market trade of tigers.

One of the key providers with evidence was Tiger Temple’s former pro bono legal advisor Soochaphong Boonserm. In an interview with the Bangkok Post, he accused the abbot of using funds raised through donations and tourist fees to build tiger temples in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Australia.

In response, the temple filed a lawsuit accusing him of professional misconduct and get his legal license revoked. Soochaphong said he considers himself in such grave danger that “he must move every few days”.

Investigative reporter Andrew Marshall may have found a discovery that offers a clue as to why the investigation has dragged on. In 2010, he learned that the Tiger Temple donated 700,000 baht (worth $23,490 at the time) to Thai police and soldiers. The former Kanchanaburi police colonel, Supitpong Pakjarung, is now the vice president of the Tiger Temple Foundation and will manage the Tiger Temple Company Ltd., the monastery’s plan to build a zoo.

In April of this year, the wildlife department granted a five-year zoo license to the company that is linked to illegal wildlife trafficking. 14 organizations opposed to the temple’s zoo plans, asking officials to “deeply scrutinize the Tiger Temple’s long history of illegal acquisition and trade of protected wildlife species; influence enforcement officials to arrest and convict those involved; adhere to the CITES commitments applicable to Thailand—and revoke this license”. In defense, Tuenjai said that because no one from the new company has been convicted of a serious crime, there was no legal justification to reject the application. However, if the temple is definitely linked to wildlife trafficking, the license could be revoked.

The license would allow the Tiger Temple Company to buy back up to 50 of the seized tigers at public auction is the zoo, a 10 acre facility just outside the temple grounds, was completed. Additionally, the license would also allow the temple’s new business to legally breed its tigers. According to Tuenjai, visitors will have opportunities for up-close photos with tiger cubs.

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Tigers perform for visitors at Thailand’s Tiger Temple Photo By: Steve Winter

However, it is also possible that the tigers could be relocated to a large sanctuary that would be financed and built by Four Paws, an organization based in Vienna, Austria, on land leased from the government. Four Paws has created humane wildlife sanctuaries in several countries such as South Africa, Jordan, and Germany, complete with wildlife hospitals and educational facilities.

“This is a long-term solution to a big problem in Thailand,” said Amir Khalil, a Four Paws veterinarian and project leader. “There are many cats in captivity in poor conditions—and there’s a need for a sanctuary for big cats.”

In a recent press conference, the temple offered its first public response to these events. Siri Wangbunkered, a temple follower and former politician, spoke to the media. “The abbot knew nothing about the products from tigers or the remains of tiger cubs,” he said. “These products were secretly produced by temple personnel who smuggled in the remains of dead tigers behind the abbot’s back.”

The temple also accused the wildlife department of “bullying and slandering” its reputation for alleging that tiger carcasses found on the premises were for sale. Furthermore, it asserted that the wildlife violated the “rule of law” by obtaining a search warrant and taking the tigers.

To date 22 people working at the temple, including three Buddhist monks, have been arrested and charged with wildlife trafficking. The wildlife department has now filed eight complaints with local police against the temple and its abbot. Charges include illegal possession of endangered wildlife and wildlife trafficking.

Chaos, Questions Surround Temple as Tigers Seized

More Controversy for Tiger Temple

United States Passes a Near-Total Ivory Ban

As the latest move in the Obama administration’s fight against wildlife trafficking, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), under the Endangered Species Act, instituted a near-total ban on the domestic commercial trade of African elephant ivory on June 6.

In a press release, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said, “Today’s bold action underscores the United States’ leadership and commitment to ending the scourge of elephant poaching and the tragic impact it’s having on wild populations.”

The rule substantially limits imports, exports, and sales of the ivory across state lines in hopes of reducing opportunities for wildlife traffickers to trade the illegal product under the guise of a legal item. It is limited to only African elephant ivory and does not further regulate ivory derived from other species, such as walrus, whale, and mammoth.

Under prior laws, once illegal ivory entered the market, it becomes nearly impossible for federal law enforcement to distinguish from legal ivory. Thus, limiting the effectiveness of law enforcement efforts to intercept black market shipments and catch traffickers. Now, the new rule will provide federal agents will clearer lines of demarcation to identify illegal ivory.

In addition to better regulations, the final rule allows specific, limited exceptions for certain pre-existing manufactured items. The sale of products such as musical instruments, furniture pieces, artworks, firearms, knives, and antiques (older than 100 years) must contain less than 200 grams of ivory  representing less than half the value and volume of the item. Furthermore, there is now a limit of two ivory trophy imports per year per hunter; previously the imports were unlimited.

Until July 6, selling ivory across states was allowed if one proved that the ivory was legally brought to the U.S. before 1990, when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) banned the ivory trade. If it was imported after 1990, proof was needed that it was imported from an elephant taken from the wild before 1976, when IUCN listed the African elephant as ‘at risk’.

With the new rules going into effect, ivory can only be sold if it is an antique or is a pre-existing manufactured product.

Regulations for selling ivory overseas also became stricter. Previously, manufactured ivory could be sold abroad as long as the item was made, and proven to be made, from ivory obtained before 1976. But under the new rules, it’s allowed only if the item is considered an antique.

In the past, poaching was driven by individuals desperate to feed their families. However, sophisticated criminal enterprises have entered the game in response to the growing demand from the Chinese for this high-status traditionally carved ivory. The United States is among the world’s largest consumers of wildlife and also has a significant ivory market, says U.S. FWS.

Wildlife trafficking contributes to an illegal economy by generating billions of dollars for organized criminal enterprises, fueling instability and undermining security, as well as reduce the economic, social, and environmental benefits of wildlife. Roughly 35,000 elephants are killed for their ivory annually or an average of 96 each day. Between 2002 and 2013, central Africa’s forest elephant population declined by two-thirds.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s enacted regulations fulfills U.S. agreement with China made in September of last year to restrict each nation’s domestic ivory trade. As of now, China has yet to take any significant public steps toward that goal.

“We hope other nations will act quickly and decisively to stop the flow of blood ivory by implementing similar regulations,” remarked Jewell.

FWS Director Dan Ashe also acknowledged the global fight against the ivory trade, “We still have much to do to save this species, but today is a good day for the African elephant.”

Administration Takes Bold Step for African Elephant Conservation

U.S. Adopts Near-Total Ivory Ban

The Dark Side of Wildlife Tourism

Wildlife tourism, defined as tourism undertaken to view and/or encounter wildlife, has surfaced online recently with reports of tragic events. Last month, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden received worldwide criticism after zoo officials were forced to kill Harambe the gorilla after a young child fell into the enclosure. A few weeks earlier, a Yellowstone National Park bison calf was euthanized by rangers after tourists put it in their car and the herd refused to take back the calf. And even more recently, evidence of abuse and wildlife trafficking at the Tiger Temple, covered earlier in this post, has been released by authorities in Thailand.

Of course, there has also been victories, the result of years of campaigns by animal rights groups. In January, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus stated it would retire its famous performing elephants to a sanctuary in central Florida. Two months later in March, SeaWorld, after public reaction to the documentary Blackfish, announced it would end its controversial killer whale breeding program.

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An elephant performs during Ciniselli Circus’ opening ceremony in Saint-Petersburg. Photo by Sergey Mihailicenko/Anadolu Agency

Despite the increasing concern to improve the growing industry, many are beginning to question to role of facilities like zoos in conservation.

It accounts for up to 40% of the total $1 trillion annual tourism industry and involves as many as 900,000 animals worldwide, reported by a Plos One study titled “The Customer Isn’t Always Right—Conservation and Animal Welfare Implications of the Increasing Demand for Wildlife Tourism”. The researchers categorized wildlife tourism into non-consumptive, wildlife-watching and captive-life tourism, and consumptive, hunting and fishing. Each were ranked according to their impacts on animal welfare. A handful of activities – such as mountain gorilla ecotourism in Uganda and Rwanda as well as some elephant sanctuaries in South Africa and Thailand – emphasize positive conservation values and animal. But, most other popular activities – including elephant rides, entertainment animals, and dolphin interactions, have the opposite effect.

With more of these operations opening, “wildlife tourism is a growing phenomenon,” says Neil D’Cruze, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford and at World Animal Protection. More and more people choose to participate in such activities with revenue soaring as a result.

Wildlife tourism affects a vast variety of species. A 2013 report UN Environmental Program’s Great Apes Survival Partnership estimates that thousands of chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas were “stolen” each year to be sold into the illegal pet market, disreputable zoos, or other tourist attractions. Last year, Zimbabwe sold 24 elephants to Chinese zoos.

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World Animal Protection

“The demand for whales and dolphins acquired from the wild continues to grow,” says WDC Courtney Vail, pointing to reports that the infamous Taiji dolphin hunt in Japan last year resulted in the sale of 117 dolphins to non-accredited aquariums or directly to wildlife dealers.

Even the capture and sale of wild killer whales are increasing, despite the public reaction to Blackfish. Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s Far East Russia Orca Project received reports of at least 16 captures over the past three years in the Sea of Okhotsk off Siberia, destined for life in Russian or Chinese aquariums. Erich Hoyt, the project’s co-director, added that Russia has established a quota for up to 10 killer whales to be captured per year. “These quotas fly in the face of scientific advice as they were awarded despite Russian marine mammal scientific advisory body recommending a zero quota in 2014 and 2015.”

Smaller creatures are also involved. Slow lorises, sugar gliders, owls, and cobras find themselves caught and sold to create photo opportunities for tourists. “The smaller the animal, the more likely it is to have been taken from the wild for a short life as a prop,” says Anna Nekaris, a professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University in England.

Experts say that one of the biggest problems of the wildlife tourism industry is that operators tell tourists that they are benefitting conservation by displaying animals.

“They claim significant conservation outcomes. They claim it’s good for the species. But they don’t contribute in that sense,” says Panthera’s Hunter, pointing to South Africa’s popular lion cub petting enterprises. These organizations breed the lions indiscriminately and later discard them once they become older or too dangerous to be around tourists. Many of the adult lions, shown in the documentary Blood Lions, end up being sold to facilities for “canned hunts” in which shooters can pay for a trophy without the trouble of tracking lions down in the wild.

Hunter feels activities like lion petting effectively steal funds from legitimate conservation activities such as those of national parks. “I’m convinced that every well-meaning person who has an extraordinary experience there believes they’re contributing to helping the species,” he says. “They want to know that the money they spent is going to conservation. It seems credible because people just don’t know better.”

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Tourists riding on elephants watch a rhinoceros with her calf at the Kaziranga National Park. AFP

D’Cruze says it is important for people to question if a facility treats it animals decently and be informed. “Where are the animals taken from? Are they put back in the wild? Are people paying for these animals or breeding them so they can sell them? What’s the actual business model of that facility?” He also emphasizes that “wild animals equal good, captive animals equal bad” after a tiger research trip to India. There, he saw tourism take a wrong turn in a national park. “There were jeeps going all over the place hounding this one animal.”

Roberts from Born Free USA also chimed in with the same experience. He says he has seen drivers at lion safaris in Africa drive closer to the animals to create a better experience. “That detracts from the natural life of the animal, and it also becomes dangerous for people,” Roberts points out.

All wildlife tourism activities will partially trade-off values of conservation, animal welfare, visitor satisfaction, and profitability. The recent and expected future global increases in wildlife tourism means that there is a pressing need to audit the diversity of wildlife tourism activities, evaluating their impacts on conservation and welfare as well as tourists’ perceptions and attitudes.

Instead of shutting down the entire industry, which is a complex task to say the least, nonprofit organizations focus on ending the cruel animal practices and educate tourists to have a change in attitude.

Tourist dollars spent wisely on positive wildlife tourism activities can provide opportunities and livelihoods for the local human population, secure long-term conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitats, create local socio-economic incentives for the preservation of wildlife and their habitats, and tourist education. Good examples include everything from national parks to private reserves that “foster encountering animals living in the wild with as little interference as possible,” says Hunter.

Despite the increasing numbers of dangerous activities, to both the wildlife and humans, progress is being made. This past March more than 100 travel agencies pledged to stop supporting elephant rides and the U.S. enacted regulations in April that will protect captive tigers cubs from being handled or fed. Roberts says the progress “sends a message” and hopes that the change will continue in a “a long-term, progressive manner”.

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Wildlife Tourism Faces Dark Days—but Revenue Soars

The Customer Isn’t Always Right—Conservation and Animal Welfare Implications of the Increasing Demand for Wildlife Tourism

Wildlife Not Entertainers

Conserving Wildlife Through Responsible Tourism: An Interview With Dr. Michael Hutchins

Checking Out of Cruelty: How To End Wildlife Tourism’s Holiday Horrors

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