By Nirmal Ghosh
Wildlife office says 'Tiger Temple' must not run the place as a business or breed them
Thailand's "Tiger Temple" in Kanchanaburi province is off the tourist map, at least for now.
Officials have descended on the temple to count and register its 146 tigers and investigate the apparent disappearance of three tigers.
Backing off from an earlier notice that it would remove the tigers, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) has agreed to let the temple keep them, but said it should not run the place as a business.
Over the past two days, DNP officials counted the tigers, which were led out of cages, tied to trees and scanned for microchips that are required to be implanted in them.
THE PERILS OF HAVING TIGER 'FARMS'
The attempts by Thailand's Department of National Parks to investigate Kanchanaburi province's Tiger Temple have thrown a spotlight on the controversial practice of breeding tigers in the country.
The practice is big business in South-east Asia and China, where there may be more than 7,000 of them in tiger "farms" or facilities - like the Tiger Temple - many of which entertain tourists for a fee.
Some facilities are set up like petting zoos, with visitors allowed to handle and play with tiger cubs. Some offer circus-like shows.
But some can be fronts for trading of live or dead tigers - or their body parts. The main market for those is China.
Quite apart from the animal welfare issue, breeding tigers in captivity amounts to speculating on their extinction in the wild, say experts.
Ms Debbie Banks, Britain-based tiger campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency, says the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites, signed by 181 countries, including China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) had agreed in 2007 that tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and body parts.
In a phone interview from London, she said: "Everyone agreed the tiger farms undermine enforcement, are a means to launder tigers and perpetuate the demand.
"But the focus was on China and there was no real pressure brought on China to reverse the situation, so it has been ignored for eight years.
"Tiger-breeding is out of control. It undermines conservation of wild tigers, and there is complete lack of transparency and lack of commitment in the international community to address it."
Captive tiger-breeding does nothing to help wild tigers, which are among the most endangered species. There are just over 3,000 left in disparate populations, mostly in India, where tiger-poaching is a constant threat.
But there are up to 6,000 captive-bred tigers in China, and Chinese tiger farmers have been lobbying for the trade in tiger parts to be opened up, which experts say will open the floodgates to wild tigers being laundered through the bred stocks. Thailand is thought to have around 1,000 captive tigers, Laos around 400 and Vietnam over 100.
Experts say with will and commitment, tiger-breeding centres can be closed down and possibly compensated for any financial losses. Thus far, there is no sign of any such commitment.