A new report alleging that the famous "Tiger Temple" in Kanchanaburi has been involved in the illegal wildlife trade for more than a decade is expected to increase pressure on Thai authorities to intervene.
Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yanasampanno in Sai Yok district has been the focus of inquiries since three of its 147 captive tigers reportedly disappeared in late 2014. However, police investigations have made little progress and wildlife protection officials have conceded that the case is "very sensitive".
The Tiger Temple is estimated to generate about 100 million baht a year from tourists who visit by the busload to pet and feed tiger cubs, walk tigers on leashes and take selfies with the animals, according to National Geographic magazine, which this week released details of the new trafficking allegations.
All of the tigers at the temple are supposed to have microchips implanted in them. However, it was revealed last year that the microchips had been cut out of the three adult males that disappeared in December 2014. The temple's longtime veterinarian, Somchai Visasmongkolchai, made the revelation after resigning his post and turning over the microchips to officials of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
Department officials conducted follow-up inspections at the temple in April last year and confirmed that the tigers were missing. They also discovered that 13 other tigers lacked microchips and found the carcass of a tiger in a freezer.
Now the Australian activist group Cee4life (Conservation and Environmental Education for Life) says it has new information indicating that tigers have been taken illegally to and from the temple since at least 2004. The group's "Tiger Temple Report" was given simultaneously to Thai officials and National Geographic last month and was released publicly this week.
"The information presented in this report provides undisputable evidence that the Tiger Temple is a commercial breeding and illegal international wildlife trading venue," said the report.
The report also alleges that "an unprecedented number of deaths of tigers (and other protected species housed within the grounds) has occurred and severe abuse and neglect have been reported and documented.
"Yet the Tiger Temple continues to operate with immunity, arguably protected because it is a Buddhist monastery," it said.
The report includes what the group says are veterinary records from 1999 and 2000 indicating that four of the temple's original tigers were "wild caught" and a 2004 document stating that a female tiger named Nanfa had been "imported from Laos".
A 2005 contract signed by the temple's abbot and provided to National Geographic details the swap of a male from the temple with a female from a commercial tiger-breeding operation in Laos. An audiotape acquired from an unnamed temple adviser records a conversation between the abbot and Mr Somchai, the former veterinarian, about the three missing tigers.
Allegations of tiger smuggling at the temple were first made in 2008, when National Geographic reported on a study by the British wildlife group Care for the Wild. Around the same time, a group known as the International Tiger Coalition said the temple had made "no contribution whatsoever to wild tiger conservation".
Sybelle Foxcroft, an Australian wildlife management expert, provided much of the impetus for the latest report by Cee4life. She first visited the temple in 2007 to study captive-tiger management for her master's thesis, and was able to take photographs and shoot video of the activities there.
While staying at the temple, she witnessed the abduction of two four-month-old tiger cubs, and began to notice a pattern involving tigers being removed from the temple and new ones being brought in. She observed monks carrying walkie-talkies while these operations took place.
Since 2008, she said, "between six and 20 tiger cubs were needed every three months for tourists to cuddle". When they get older, "they become too dangerous".
The only way to meet this demand, she explained, was "speed breeding": removing newborn cubs from their mothers. That puts females in heat again, and they can bear at least two litters a year — instead of one litter about every two years, as in the wild.
Foxcroft has compiled a list that identifies 281 tigers that passed through the temple from 1999 to 2015. She said the difference between 281 and the 147 tigers known to be at the temple is too great to be accounted for by deaths alone. Tigers in captivity normally live from 16 to 22 years.
"So if you do the math," she told National Geographic, "where are all those tigers?"
Meanwhile, the Tiger Temple has been split into three separate entities: the monastery, a corporation that will handle a new tiger enterprise, and a foundation.
Former Kanchanaburi police colonel Supitpong Pakjarung, now vice-president of the foundation, told National Geographic that a new safari-style tiger sanctuary was being planned. Another area would allow hands-on contact with tigers, and the cats would be allowed to breed freely. In December the foundation submitted an application for a zoo licence.
The Department of National Parks has been trying to confiscate the temple's 147 tigers since April 2015, on grounds that they are state property, which makes it illegal to earn tourist money from them.
Adisorn Nuchdumrong, the department's deputy director-general, conceded that removing animals from a temple was difficult, and that the impact on local employment was also a consideration. "It's a very sensitive issue," he told National Geographic.
Last week, the magazine reported, department officials were prevented from removing the first batch of tigers, and two uniformed men now guard the temple's front gate. Mr Adisorn said he would seek a court order if necessary and arrange for the tigers to be distributed among nine government wildlife facilities.
As for the zoo licence, he said: "If we have evidence that they're involved with illegal wildlife traffic, we will not grant it."