The use of religion to provide a prescription for social ills is not uncommon; it’s a practice that dates back to the ancient Greeks. But too often advocates of a better life from beyond the grave have been caught lying, thus abusing the public’s trust and their privileges.
In Thailand, the Buddhist clergy has emerged with the latest example of impropriety with allegations of wildlife trafficking at the infamous Tiger Temple at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, which authorities have finally moved against with a court order after years of complaints.
As a premier tourist destination alone, it’s a lucrative business earning $5.7 million a year. Standard tickets costs $17 each while another $120 will buy you breakfast with the monks, playtime with the cubs and the option of hand feeding the tigers.
The monks preach that the tigers at this temple like to co-exist with humans in harmony, which seems like a very Buddhist trait. But wildlife authorities have long suspected the tigers were sedated and left docile by drugs, so enabling human contact.
Buddhist monks have denied any wrongdoing and also get very angry and become rather indignant when their moral virtues are questioned.
Their denials fell silent after 40 dead cubs were found in a freezer. The cubs were just a few days old, some had been there for more than five years and their parts were believed to be sent to China for outdated medicinal practices.
Another monk was caught with tiger skins and fangs as he attempted to flee the temple, while a search of the quarters used to house the monks turned up more body parts. Final charges have not yet been laid because, police say, the temple is still under investigation.
Earlier reports included three tigers that went missing after their installed microchips were removed. Their handlers have also been accused of abusing the animals.
This is tantamount to the farming of tigers underwritten by tourist dollars in a country which has a well-earned reputation as a hub for wildlife trafficking in animal parts ranging from ivory to lizard skins. At the temple, Asian bears, jackals and hornbills were also found.
Previous intervention efforts by the authorities had met with stiff resistance from the all-powerful clergy. Of 147 tigers, 10 were removed earlier this year while dozens more were relocated this week from the Kanchanaburi-based temple in a police operation that was expected to last several days.
Wild tigers are extinct in Indochina and are functionally extinct in China – meaning the population is too small to sustain itself. The leopard is expected to follow suit by 2018.
In Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam it was a tragic end for tigers which numbered more than 100,000 in 30 Asian countries more than a century ago. Now, just 3,200 wild tigers are left in 11 countries.
There are efforts to re-populate the Cambodian-Vietnam border with Asian tigers from India. However, critics argue regional governments have failed to enforce their own laws regarding the protection of endangered animals and thus neither country is ready for such an ambitious project.
Unless governments crack down on efforts by powerful groups to justify illegal acts, cases like the one at the Tiger Temple will continue to be discovered
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt