In June, allegations of animal abuse, wildlife smuggling, and corruption forced the closure of one of Thailand's most popular wildlife attractions. Tourists once drove the two hours from Bangkok to Tiger Temple, eager to snap photos of bottle-fed baby tigers at the temple refuge. But the whole operation was cast in a murky light when 40 tiger cub carcasses and other animal parts were found in the temple's freezer. It was alleged the dead cubs were linked to wildlife trafficking and abuse.
So under mounting pressure from both animal activists and the media, Tiger Temple handed all of its remaining cats at over Department of National Parks, Plants, and Wildlife (DNP). VICE News described this as "the latest move in a tug-of-war since 2001 to bring the tigers under state control." In just six days, 137 tigers were relocated in a huge operation, which involved the temple's volunteers, veterinarians, the military and police, and the DNP.
Canadian-Australian photographer Cory J Wright has been following and shooting the story for the past few months. He spoke to VICE about what really went on during the Tiger Temple operation, and his concerns for the tigers' wellbeing now they're under the care of the Thai Government.
VICE: Hey Cory, describe your experience of visiting Tiger Temple before it was shut down.
Cory J Wright: It was pretty sad. These were tourists taking photos with the tigers, as if they had some connection with the animal. The truth is that they think they were connecting with a wild animal, but those animals weren't wild, they were brought up in captivity. Still, when the raid happened a lot people misunderstood that they would be released to the wild.
In June, 40 tiger cub carcasses were found by Thai wildlife authorities in the temple's freezer, after a tip-off from international volunteers. How was the temple handling this scandal when you arrived?
Obviously it was very disturbing—visually—but to be completely honest [I think] the media ran the story in the wrong direction. I'm not a zoologist, but I do know that the infant mortality rate of tigers is actually quite high. There was also a back story in which [Tiger Temple] said they did not freeze the tigers if they were killed, but rather [the carcasses] were handed to the DNP. So the DNP were aware that the cubs were in the freezer, but when [the Thai wildlife authorities] laid them out, and the pictures were taken, they denied they had knowledge of it.
From the outside, it seems like there was a lot of corruption going on within the higher ranks. Do you think the volunteers were involved at all?
I know some of them personally, and they are very passionate about these animals. So I can't see them wanting to hurt them in any way. It was a difficult position because they were the first point of contact, and they were also coping a lot of the criticism that was not making the way up to management and to the monks in the temple itself.
Tell me about the attitude of the management and the monks at Tiger Temple after the scandal.
I didn't speak to any of the monks, as they were actually excluded from the operation. They had their own accommodation, outside of the temple building. I do know that there were some pretty serious accusations against them in the fourth or fifth day. Two men were instructed to remove tiger body parts from the temple grounds and officials stopped them on the way out.
There were some concerns in regards to the DNP taking care of the tigers. Have you heard any news on their status?
A lot of people assumed that once the tigers were taken from the temple they would be fine. But one tiger has died, and a lot of them have been under stress and refusing to eat since [they were removed]. The most interesting part is that the enclosure the tigers had in the temple, surpassed some western zoo standards for similar kind of animals. These yards had trees, bushes, ponds, and rocks to climb.
So do you think keeping the tigers in the temple would have been a better option?
Yes, in my opinion it is waste. What really needed to happen was pulling out the bad apples that were running the place. Perhaps shutting it down to tourism in order to make it a real wildlife refuge.
Have you caught up with any of the Tiger Temple volunteers after the raid?
A lot of the volunteers who were vilified in the media have actually taken the initiative and crowdfunded to help the government build better enclosures for the cats in these new facilities.
After experiencing all of this, how do you feel about the issue of illegal animal trade in Thailand?
It is unfortunate and sad that it happens. Greed has a lot to do with it because the demand from places like China—where tiger blood and parts are related to a belief that it will bring strength and enhance sexual ability—is huge. If there is a demanding market, sadly, it will continue to happen, unless there is a very focused and concerted effort in the region.
What would you say to people that want to go and pay for this kind of animal tourism?
It is something that they need to have a closer look at. Unfortunately a lot of people don't do their homework. Even on the first day of the raid, when there were officers and DNP staff everywhere, there were still tourists coming in. That is the kind of mindset people have, of going Thailand to have experiences and take pictures and selfies—they do not look too far beyond on what happens once they leave.
See more of Cory's photos here
Words and interview by Laura Rodriguez Castro. Follow her on Twitter