More than half of nearly 150 tigers rescued from a Thai amusement park in 2016 have reportedly died from viral diseases, a fate the government blames on inbreeding but which animal welfare advocates say could have been prevented.
The tigers had been moved to government-run sanctuaries after Thai authorities raided the Tiger Temple tourist attraction in Kanchanaburi Province following longtime suspicions of animal trafficking and abuse.
Unfortunately for the animals, government officials said, their prior conditions had permanent effects.
“When we took the tigers in, we noted that they had no immune system due to inbreeding,” Prakit Vongsrivattanakul, a senior official from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, told the state-owned broadcaster MCOT. “We treated them as symptoms came up.”
Thai PBS reported that 86 of the 147 tigers removed from the park in June 2016 gradually succumbed to illness and died.
Their illnesses included laryngeal paralysis, an upper respiratory condition that interferes with breathing, and canine distemper. Stress from relocation was also blamed, officials from Thailand’s Department of National Parks told The New York Times.
Tiger Temple, also known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua, had promoted itself as a wildlife sanctuary in a Buddhist temple that allowed paying visitors to bottle-feed cubs and pet tigers.
Following allegations of misconduct, a raid of the park uncovered inbreeding and the remains of 40 newborn tigers packed inside of preserving jars and a freezer. The body of a binturong, a protected species commonly known as a bearcat, was also found with the frozen cub carcasses. Monks were also reportedly arrested while trying to escape the temple with tiger skin and teeth.
The temple, in a Facebook post a few months before the 2016 raid, had said that it preserves the tigers’ corpses as a means of documentation. The temple also denied having a breeding program and said its tigers have naturally high breeding numbers because they “are happy and healthy.”
Adisorn Nuchdamrong, deputy director-general of the wildlife department, had called the dead cubs’ storage illegal at the time of their discovery, telling Al Jazeera that they had to be registered.
Tanya Erzinclioglu, an animal welfare activist who helped care for the tigers at the temple, blamed both the temple and the government for the tigers’ deaths.
“The deaths could have been prevented if the raid and subsequent removal of the tigers had been managed in a better way,” she told The New York Times. “The tigers were the ones who got in the middle. It was handled poorly, and the tigers suffered for it.”
Edwin Wiek, founder of the Thai wildlife refuge Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, also put blame on the government, saying authorities ignored his recommendation to keep the tigers’ cages farther apart to prevent disease from spreading.
“It is a very sad story,” he told the Times. “I warned them about it at that time. It was avoidable, but they wouldn’t listen.”
Tiger Temple has remained closed since the raid, according to The Washington Post, though it continues to identify itself as an animal sanctuary online.
According to its Facebook page, it features “hundreds of animals, including one lion, several civet cats, pea fowl, and thai ponies as well as herds of deer, buffalo, cows and boars.”