Temple officials say authorities knew about preserved cubs found on premises
Five people charged so far for illegal possession of endangered animal parts
The Buddhist temple accused of abusing dozens of tigers seized by wildlife authorities in Thailand has denied allegations that it mistreated or traded the animals on the black market.
In an exclusive interview with CNN, the temple’s abbot, Luang Ta Chan, said that he felt “sick” when the tigers were taken from the temple.
“I already have a heart problem and what they just did to me… was just like they gave me another heart attack.”
He twice declined to directly answer questions posed by CNN regarding the trafficking of tiger parts or live tiger smuggling from the temple.
When asked, he responded: “Let me tell you this, my feeling now it is just like I am destroyed, completely destroyed. (I have) nothing left, I am 65 years old already…The department of national parks just destroyed my soul. This is all I can say.”
He said that he did not address the public to explain the situation at the park while the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) raid was ongoing because there was “no point to explain.
“There is no point of doing that, it was all false news. I didn’t want to legitimize it.”
Temple official: ‘Robbery’
At a press conference Thursday, a representative for the monks Siri Wangboonlert said,”this is a robbery. They have no right to confiscate the tigers.”
The Tiger Temple was a popular attraction with visitors who paid an entrance fee to pet and pose for photos with the 137 cats, but it had faced substantial criticism over its alleged practices.
Chan had been expected to speak at the press conference, but arrived on a gold cart and waved at reporters before leaving. Accused of fleeing the temple when the raid occurred, he told CNN that he was at my temple “all along. When the (the DNP) was here, they just could not find me.”
Temple officials said he had not been involved in the running of the sanctuary and could not speak as he had recently undergone a heart operation.
Around 20 police and military officers were also present.
Preserved cubs, animal body parts found
Five men, including three monks, have been charged with possession of endangered animal parts without permission. If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of four years in prison and/or a fine of $1,100.
Major General Suranit Prombut told CNN over the phone that the abbot and others were being investigated but “there are many people involved in this, (so) it may take a bit of time.”
Earlier, the temple defended itself on Facebook, saying that tiger cubs typically have a mortality rate as high as 40% – and that the bodies were preserved for scientific purposes.
DNP deputy director general Adisorn Noochdumrong told CNN that number sounded “about right, but it is the wrong focus. If they said the rate is 40% where are the rest? It means there must be many more tigers in the sanctuary than we saw. And where are they?”
It is illegal for the temple to keep unregistered cubs whether it is for research or the more sinister intent to sell them.
At the press conference, temple officials insisted that the DNP knew about the deceased cubs kept on its premises but DNP said they had presented no evidence of registration.
Fate of tigers
The 137 confiscated tigers have been moved to a new home at a government sanctuary in Ratchaburi Province, about 90 km (56 miles) away.
Mia Hunter, who said she volunteered with the temple for three years, insisted that while the sanctuary was “imperfect”, it is “better for the cats than where they have been taken to.”
Noochdumrong said that wasn’t true. “Our sanctuaries are in good condition and ready to care for any animals. We have our own veterinarians 24/7, and we have opened our places to allow media to see with their own eyes.”
There are only around 4,000 tigers left in the wild. After a century of declining numbers, the tiger population is finally on the rise.
April data from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) showed that the tiger population had increased for the first time from as few as 3,200 in 2010.
But the NGO warned that there was much work to be done for the species and they still face enormous pressures from poaching, retaliatory killings and habitat loss.