All 137 tigers remaining in Thailand’s infamous “tiger temple” are being removed by Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.

The relocation comes despite the objection of the abbot and monks. The first five tigers were removed overnight by wildlife officials on January 28, followed by another group of five taken to the Pa Khao Son and Khao Prathap Chang wildlife breeding centers in Ratchaburi Province on February 23.

The temple, formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Maha Bua Yannasampanno, is located in a remote corner of Thailand’s western Kanchanaburi province. Its sizable tiger population put it under the spotlight.

Last year, the DNP ordered the temple to hand over its 147 tigers, citing a lack of permits.

After seeking permission to operate as a zoo, the controversial temple was granted an official zoo license by Thai authorities in spite of national opposition in April.

The temple failed to complete the formalities needed to operate as a zoo.

As for the temple’s agreement with Thai officials, its lawyer said the temple expects to eventually get the tigers back. He said the temple will buy the tigers back from the state after it completes its zoo registration.

The temple has faced numerous allegations of animal abuse and illegal wildlife trafficking since 2001, with substantial evidence presented on several occasions by both non-governmental organizations and former volunteers and staff.

According to a National Geographic report in January, the Tiger Temple is estimated to generate 100 million baht ($2.8 million) per year from tourists who come to pet and feed the tiger cubs, walk the tigers on leashes or take selfies with the animals.

Vanishing Siberian Tiger

Two hundred years ago, the Siberian tiger ranged across northeast China, the Russian Far East and the Korean Peninsula. In the last century, that area shrank significantly.

In China, especially in the last 50 years, tiger numbers have dropped by 90 percent or more.

An investigation by the International Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) from 1998-1999, jointly conducted with the US and Russia, found fewer than 20 Siberian tigers in the wild.

In the 1950s, Siberian tigers were directly hunted. Since then, even after the creation of a tiger sanctuary, the population has plummeted. Experts blame deforestation, the hunting of other forest products, and poaching for the substantial loss.

Some doctors of Chinese medicine believe that the tiger’s whole body can be used to prevent and cure diseases. The demand for tiger products as a medicinal ingredient fuels the trade in poached animals.

Although modern scientific research shows that tiger bones and organs lack the miraculous curative powers ascribed by ancient doctors, modern science has a way of losing to traditional concepts in Asia.

When Siberian tigers vanished from China, poachers began crossing into Russia to hunt the animal and traffic its body back to China.

Because tigers by nature are solitary animals with a very low population density, poaching has an especially devastating impact.

Missing the Legal Radar

In China, the Siberian tiger is on the brink of extinction. Two places connected with Russia – Hunchun and Eastern Wanda Mountain – have become the country’s only hope to save the animal.

Since the establishment of the Hunchun Nature Reserve in 2001, the range and frequency of the tiger’s activities have shown an upward trend.

Although there are no nature reserves on Eastern Wanda Mountain, tiger activity increased significantly over the past two years with the decrease in human activities.

China lacks specific laws to protect wild animals. The generic Wild Animal Protection Law contains only a few relevant provisions of the laws and regulations.

Beijing Youth Daily noted that, since 1989, the Ministry of Agriculture has never updated its list of protected wild animals. Many animal protection levels are waiting to be adjusted. In China, animals not included in the list are afforded no legal protection.

According to relevant laws, management of A-Level and B-Level protected animals is different.

Animals listed as having A-Level protection are given great importance. In order to protect it at the species level, departments may designate special nature reserves and scientists typically devote more efforts to related research and monitoring.

Animals not listed at the A-Level are widely ignored.

Need for Protection

To protect the animals, a stronger legal system and social attention are both necessary.

It will be a while before the government updates its Wild Animal Protection Law, even as conservation experts continue to call for expanded animal protection.

Chinese society is raising awareness about the need to protect endangered species. But many endangered wild animals may not be able to wait for the legal system to catch up and decide it’s their turn.

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