BANGKOK - I have just emerged from a few days in a Tiger Reserve in India, where I saw a tigress in the jungle. It was early morning, and she was lying up, relaxed, in the sparse leafy ground cover. She was watching us as we watched her, at a distance of around 30m.
Around us in the trees, agitated langur monkeys coughed in alarm; some distance away deer called as well, peering at her through the trees, their tails raised, alert.
After a while she got up and melted away. Minutes later from an unseen ravine, she rumbled three times, the deep calls echoing through the forest. Immediately the monkeys and deer fell quiet and there was silence.
Such is the presence of the great cat.
Meanwhile in Thailand, a grisly drama was playing out at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province, west of Bangkok. The place – the polar opposite of a true Tiger Reserve like the one I have just come out from - has been a top tourist attraction for many years, despite misgivings as to what goes on there.
The discovery of a virtual charnel house with tiger cubs and other species stuffed in freezers, and jars of supposedly potent concoctions made from tiger parts, has shocked even those who suspected that the temple had been not just abusing, but breeding and trading tigers.
It was a long time coming. There had been much saber rattling and soap opera in recent months as the Tiger Temple – which had turned itself into a cottage industry on the back of cowed tigers marched in the sun for naive tourists – fought against attempts to confiscate its tigers.
At one point the Department of National Parks (DNP) had to lift bears over the wall with cranes to outflank monks and others deployed at the gates in an attempt to thwart the raid.
The temple is both wealthy and influential. "The abbott is a businessman in robes," Mr Edwin Wiek, longtime wildlife activist and founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand (WFFT) which maintains a major rescue centre south of Bangkok, told me.
A very brief history of the temple is called for, which will not be found in the countless fliers in Bangkok taxis extolling the supposed tiger sanctuary.
Years ago, the DNP reached an agreement with the temple’s abbot – last seen heading for the anonymity of Bangkok - that while the tigers belonged to the state (i.e. the DNP) the temple could take care of them.
That opened the door to a business enterprise where millions would pay to have their pictures taken petting a tiger, or flock to take pictures of monks in robes leading fully grown tigers on leashes.
While styling itself for years as a tiger ''sanctuary'' the temple has been making millions of baht off tourists, in what amounts to a thrill-seeking petting zoo.
There have been maulings as well at the Tiger Temple.
And while its photogenic Buddhist monks in orange robes walking adult tigers around have been celebrated in some documentary films, non-government organisations (NGOs) and activists have long carried out investigations into the temple's activities and revealed problematic issues.
The Britain-based Care for the Wild International (CWI), in a 2008 report by a volunteer who had worked undercover there, detailed abuse and exploitation of the tigers, essentially to permanently cow them into submission.
This is not difficult to understand for anyone who has ever had a house cat; only by using extreme fear and dominance is it possible to get tigers to do what you want.
The temple has also long been suspected of trading in tigers – and has not shied away from suing those who have made the allegation.
On June 5, the Bangkok Post commented in an editorial: "The discovery of tiger parts and cub carcasses at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi has shocked the world, and it begs the question as to why the temple had been able to abuse the protected animals for so long.
"Repeated efforts to shut down the Tiger Temple were previously delayed and complicated by the fact secular Thai authorities were hesitant to intervene in the affairs of the clergy."
Some months ago, as the DNP made its attempts to retrieve the tigers amid the emergence of more and more allegations raised by National Geographic and others, the temple’s lawyers demanded millions of baht in compensation from the government for taking care of the big cats.
The government countered that the temple not supposed to breed the tigers. The temple had about 16 tigers in 2007; the DNP counted 149 by the time its rescue operation came to a close last Friday (June 3), with all the tigers and other wildlife and the skins, bones and carcasses and body parts of tigers removed.
Thailand’s authorities are now investigating whether the temple was part of a transnational wildlife trafficking racket. On Friday, the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in a statement said: "The reported discovery of 70 dead tiger cubs, as well as tiger skins, talismans and other wildlife parts in a Buddhist temple in Thailand is a shock to many around the world. While circumstances of their death remain unclear, sadly, those tiger cubs represent only a tiny proportion of the enormous extent of an illegal trade in wildlife that is pushing species to the brink of extinction.'
''Indeed, only around 4,000 tigers are left in the wild. Until the illegal trade in wildlife is stopped, we are only likely to see more of these types of situations."
The discoveries at the temple raise a number of questions that demand attention.
First, why do such establishments which are essentially tiger farms exist at all? There are a staggering 7,000 tigers in "farms" across China and Indochina.
In Thailand northern province of Chiang Mai, there is a Tiger Kingdom which on its website shows tourists posing with tigers and even states that it ‘’aims to increase the tiger population through captive breeding.''
''These tigers, however, are not prepared to inhabit the wild and therefore, are faded (sic) to remain in captive (sic) from birth to death, which, given the current situation, it’s understood (sic) to be better than no tigers at all.’’
But it needs to be understood that breeding tigers in captivity does not serve the aim of wildlife conservation.
If tigers are wiped out from the wild and exist only in captivity, they are in effect divorced completely from their natural habitat. The point of wildlife conservation is to protect the species in its habitat, where it is at the apex of a complex and diverse food chain.
This is the very essence of biodiversity or wildlife conservation 101.
In effect, farming tigers may be betting on their extinction in the wild, and is a means of making large quantities of cash from gullible tourists. Certainly like the Tiger Temple, some may - or have the potential to - trade tigers and tiger parts through the back door (or in the case of the temple, the front gate), fuelling a black market and creating laundering opportunities for tigers killed in the wild.
Second is the question of ethical tourism. The temple was promoted by countless tour operators, even after and as NGOs and the DNP raised issues, and critiques and allegations were freely available online.
The temple was making US$5.7 million (S$7.75 million) in ticket sales annually, the New York Times reported, quoting Thai officials.
For years the tourism industry has tacitly endorsed the Tiger Temple. It still rates 3.5 out of five on Tripadvisor, where it is still listed as of the time this blog was written (June 5). If establishments like these cannot be closed down as activists and conservationists demand, serious questions should at least be raised about tours to other tiger farms and shows without rigorous due diligence and investigation by neutral parties and the authorities.
The long delayed crackdown in Kanchanaburi should open the door to a thorough and wide ranging investigation and reassessment of tiger farms.
I learned of the raids on the Tiger Temple while I was back in the jungle in India. As the tigress we were watching melted away into the undergrowth in the vast sprawling forest ridged with hills and carved by silver streams, I thought how lucky she was.
Nirmal Ghosh has written on and worked in wildlife conservation for three decades.