Conservationists are cheering a reported crackdown on Thailand's "Tiger Temple," a Buddhist monastery that lets tourists pose with the scores of big cats on its grounds.
The temple, located about 100 miles west of Bangkok, has long been the subject of complaints by animal advocates who suspect it has links to the black-market trade in endangered tigers. This week, Thailand's government raided the facility and reportedly impounded more than 100 tigers, along with dozens of rare birds.
"I think it's about time they cracked down on them," Carole Baskin, CEO of the Florida-based Big Cat Rescue, told VICE News. Thailand's investigation may be able to prove "once and for all" that large numbers of tigers are ending up on the black market, where its pieces can fetch $50,000 to $60,000, she said.
"There's way too many cats that are being bred and raised that aren't showing up in sanctuaries," Baskin said. "So we know that something really horrible has to be happening to them, and until somebody sheds light on it, it's never going to stop."
There was no immediate response to the allegations from the temple. In 2009, it unsuccessfully sought to prosecute Thai conservation groups who leveled similar claims.
"I'm glad that they are investigating this, because I think they can finally make that link that proves where these cats are ending up," Baskin said.
In 2008, the British-based environmental group Care for the Wild International released what it said was the result of a three-year investigation into the organization. It found that the tigers were abused in captivity and that adults were "unsuitable for inclusion" in conservation breeding programs.
"The Tiger Temple claims it received its first tigers legitimately as animals rescued from poachers," CWI reported. "However, investigators obtained evidence that suggested that, rather than continuing as a rescue centre, the Temple now operates as a breeding facility and may be involved in the illegal tiger trade."
Adam Roberts, the head of the American wildlife protection group Born Free USA, said that even without "solid proof" of illegal activity, "the place is of massive concern."
"Tiger Temple markets itself as this haven of tranquility where tigers are rescued from poachers to live a happy life," Roberts told VICE News. "The reality is that it's a zoo at which the tigers are kept in very poor conditions, fed inappropriate food and forced to interact with tourists for photo opportunities."
Turner Barr, a blogger who briefly volunteered at the Tiger Temple, told VICE News that the animals there were reproducing quickly.
"They were saying, 'Oh, we're taking in these animals.' No, they're actively breeding them," Barr told VICE News. The biggest draw for tourists is being able to bottle-feed tiger cubs, "and they only stay that kind of bottle-feeding age from about 4 weeks old to about 10 weeks."
There were 126 tigers at the temple when he volunteered in August 2013, including six that were under eight weeks old.
"At that kind of birthrate, you'd think there would be way more than that," Barr said. But he added, "There's no transparency. There's just this black hole of, 'Where the fuck are all the tigers?'"
Barr said he knew about the complaints when he signed on for a minimum one-month stint at the temple, where several Westerners were also volunteers. He lasted 18 days, saying he was "sickened" by the experience.
"I think people get a little starry-eyed when they visit," Barr said. "They kind of forget the bigger-picture questions like, 'Is this ethical?' or 'Why is this monastery of monks having this huge tiger facility?' "
Roberts, whose organization works closely with CWI, urged tourists to avoid the temple "at all costs" and treat the raid "as a wakeup call."
Baskin said there's a growing market for luxury goods made tiger other body parts, particularly among the newly wealthy of China.
"It's the teeth and the pelts that cost so much money," she said. "Or the bones that are steeped in wine, and those bottles of wine are openly traded even though it's illegal to use the derivatives of tiger bodies. They're still openly traded between high-ranking Chinese officials as luxury gifts or bribes."
JA Mills, author of Blood of the Tiger, told VICE News that organizations like the Tiger Temple fuel poaching in Asian countries. Villagers take tiger cubs out of the wild and sell them to reservations for $20 to $100b— "a lot of money for someone who lives on a dollar a day" — or to people who buy them as pets, only to give them away when they can no longer take care of the animals.
"There are many facilities like this in Thailand and all over Asia that are laundromats, where they have live animals coming in the front door and animals going out in parts out the back door," Mills said.
A spokesperson for the Tiger Temple told VICE News: "Nothing has changed at the Tiger Temple; it is business as usual. The Tiger Temple is under Royal Thai patronage to Princess of Thailand, so nobody can close it down."
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl