Cops probe Tiger Temple links to global network

Cops probe Tiger Temple links to global network

Dept slammed for not revoking zoo licence

Park rangers try to take a tiger out of a cage after the cat was moved from the Tiger Temple to the Khao Son wildlife breeding centre in Chom Bung district in Ratchaburi on Friday. (Photo by Sunan Ochakhachorn)
Park rangers try to take a tiger out of a cage after the cat was moved from the Tiger Temple to the Khao Son wildlife breeding centre in Chom Bung district in Ratchaburi on Friday. (Photo by Sunan Ochakhachorn)

The large number of dead tiger cubs seized from the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province has prompted a new investigation into possible links with a transnational wildlife trafficking network.

Five suspects have been charged with illegal wildlife possession. However, the national parks and wildlife department said it will not revoke the zoo licence recently issued to the temple.

"Are all the carcasses linked with domestic or transnational wildlife trade groups?" asked national police chief Pol Gen Chakthip Chaijinda, after the shocking discovery of dead tigers and items made from their carcasses over the past two days.

His deputy, Pol Gen Chaloemkiat Siworakhan, has been assigned to look for any links and his team will begin work immediately as police already have information on wildlife trafficking routes, said the police chief.

"This should not be a complicated case," Pol Gen Chakthip said, expecting that investigators will soon bring the wrongdoers to justice. Among the evidence that could implicate the temple with the tiger trade are an assortment of tiger-related products. Plastic bottles with labels advertising them as supplementary food with "tiger power" were found during the authorities' search of the temple, officials said.

Wat Pa Luang Ta Maha Bua, known as the Tiger Temple, in Sai Yok district, is currently facing four counts of wrongdoing, according to Sai Yok district chief Pol Col Bandit Muangsukhum.

One involves three monks and two laymen. Some of them were seen in a pickup truck carrying two large tiger pelts, and more than 1,000 ta krut talismans on Thursday.

The illegal possession of 40 tiger cub carcasses, six hornbills and 27 sheets of processed wood, including teak, are listed separately in another three cases.

Authorities found parts of tiger carcasses in the living quarters of the temple abbot, Phra Sutthi Sarathera, alias Luang Ta Chan. The abbot left the temple for Bangkok last Sunday but his whereabouts remain unknown, said Phra Lamon Wanthiya, who is among the three monk suspects.

He admitted that he and the other monks took the pelts and talismans from the abbot's living quarters to the truck.

On Friday, authorities found two more tigers which were not on the temple's original list, bringing the total number of tigers in the temple's possession to 149.

Wildlife officials continue to remove tigers from the temple to wildlife breeding areas in Ratchaburi. More than 119 have been removed over five days.

Tuanjai Noochdamrong, of the Wildlife Conservation Office, said that officials may need to ask the government for additional funds to feed all of the tigers, anticipating expenses of between 600,000 and 800,000 baht a month.

Meanwhile, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said it will not revoke the zoo licence issued to the temple in April, saying that charges of illegal wildlife possession were laid against the temple, not the company established to manage the zoo.

Thanya Nethithammakul, the department's chief, said that the Tiger Temple Co, set up by the temple's foundation to organise the zoo, was not found to be involved with the illegal wildlife carcasses found in the temple.

"We can't revoke the zoo's licence as the way it was obtained is legal. The methods by which it obtained the licence complied with the law. We see no reason to revoke it," he said. The zoo licence will be valid until April, 18, 2021.

However, he stressed that the department will closely monitor the company's zoo operation, ensuring that all animals living in the zoo are authorised by the department.

Edwin Weik, director of the Wildlife Friends Foundation, said that the company should not operate the zoo as it has a close relationship with the temple that is guilty of being involved in the illegal wildlife trade, saying that the department could revoke the licence by adding a charge of illegal wildlife possession against the temple's committee members, who are also members of the company's board.

The department yesterday confiscated Banteng, horns and bears found in the temple, after it seized 40 tiger cub carcasses and other wild animal carcasses and amulets made of tiger parts. It confiscated 13 wild animals worth 148,000 baht.

The United Nations Environment Programme, together with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime issued a statement saying that the discovery of tiger cub carcasses as well as tiger skins, talismans and other illegal possessions at a Buddhist temple in Thailand was a "shock".

"The discovery is a shock to many around the world. While the circumstances of their death remain unclear, sadly, those tiger cubs represent only a tiny proportion of the enormous extent of the illegal trade in wildlife that is pushing species to the brink of extinction," they noted.

"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 extent of this illegal trade and the urgent need to end it is why the UN launched the Wild for Life campaign, an appeal for everyone to act to stop wildlife trafficking, according to the statement.

The illegal trade in wildlife, believed to reap criminals profits in the billions of dollars each year worldwide, comprises everything from the lucrative trade in tiger parts in East Asia to ivory from poached African elephants. It undermines our environment, economies, communities and security, said the statement.

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