The country has been shocked by news of the high death toll among tigers in the care of the Wildlife Conservation Department at two state-owned sanctuaries in Ratchaburi.
News emerged late last week that 86 tigers — more than half of the big cats confiscated from Kanchanaburi-based Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno temple-monastery — had died over the course of three years.
Veterinarians blamed the deaths on two diseases: laryngeal paralysis which made it hard for the infected tigers to breathe, and Canine Distemper Virus or CDV, an incurable disease. The officials also mentioned that weak immunity as a result of inbreeding, as well as stress, may have worsened their condition.
Wildlife officials insisted some of the big cats had shown signs of breathing difficulties before they were moved in 2016 to the two Ratchaburi sanctuaries, Khao Son and Khao Pratap Chang.
Authorities raided Kanchanaburi’s so-called Tiger Temple in 2001 and seized seven big cats, one of which died during the operation.
However, unable to find an appropriate new home for the Siberian tigers, they left them at the temple and their number eventually soared to 147, though the monks and caretakers have been unable to offer a clear explanation for the population explosion.
Authorities visited the temple again in 2015 following reports that tigers were “missing”, which echoed conservationists’ concerns over possible mistreatment or even abuse of wildlife.
Some alleged that illicit trafficking was behind the sharp increase in tigers. The monastery operated for more than a decade as an “open zoo” where visitors could play with and feed seemingly tame big cats. The attraction was said to have generated enormous amounts of money.
After repeated delays, the authorities decided in 2016 to relocate 85 of the tigers to Khao Prathap Chang wildlife sanctuary and the remaining 65 to Khao Son.
During the removal operation, officials discovered the frozen carcasses of 40 tiger cubs, alongside some 100 other wildlife species — evidence that appeared to confirm the old accusations of illegal trafficking.
The tigers were said to have begun dying in the first year of relocation, with 54 succumbing at Khao Prathap Change and 32 at Khao Son over three years.
The Wildlife Conservation Department dismissed allegations the tigers were neglected. It said diseases like CVD are deadly and can only be treated, not cured. There are fears more tigers may have to be euthanised to prevent the disease spreading to the remaining animals.
Animal welfare agencies are correct in raising one key question: Why has the wildlife agency kept the deaths secret over the past three years?
Adding to suspicions are that the delay in the 2016 relocation suggests there was no appropriate place to house the tigers in the first place, as alleged by the former tiger caretakers.
What could be deemed a cover-up only serves to intensify suspicions that the department was unable to take care of the animals properly, prompting a further question of why it failed to seek cooperation from related agencies to halt the deaths.
A full and transparent probe into the tiger deaths is now needed as a matter of urgency.
BANGKOK POST EDITORIAL COLUMN
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