In 2016, Thai authorities removed 147 big cats from the so-called “Tiger Temple,” a notorious tourist attraction long plagued by allegations of abuse and exploitation. Three years later, 86 of these tigers are dead, leaving just 61 survivors still in government care.
Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation announced the tigers’ passing Monday. Per a statement, the animals’ primary cause of death was laryngeal paralysis, a respiratory disease that impairs sufferers’ breathing. Other contributing factors included stress triggered by relocation; immune deficiencies associated with inbreeding; and canine distemper, a virus most commonly seen in domestic dogs.
Speaking with the New York Times’ Ryn Jirenuwat and Richard C. Paddock, Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, says the deaths could have been avoided if the government had taken preventive measures such as increasing the distance between cages.
In an interview with BBC News, the conservationist notes that cramped conditions enabled the spread of disease among the big cats. He further cites the government’s limited budget, which prevented officials from treating those affected by canine distemper. (The virus is easily managed with proper food and supplements, clean water, and space to roam.)
“To be very honest, who would be ready to take in so many tigers at once?” Wiek says. “The authorities should have asked for help from outside, but instead insisted on doing all [the] work themselves.”
The tigers’ one-time temple caretaker, Athithat Srimanee, also refutes the government’s account. “They did not die because of inbreeding,” he tells Reuters’ Panarat Thepgumpanat and Panu Wongcha-um, but because they were housed in inadequately sized cages.
Australian conservation nonprofit Cee4Life exposed conditions at the Tiger Temple, a Buddhist monastery located northwest of Bangkok, in an investigation published in January 2016. As National Geographic’s Sharon Guynup reported in an accompanying exposé, the temple—controversial due to its reputedly poor treatment of captive animals—generated around $3 million in annual income by charging tourists to feed and take pictures with the tigers housed on its grounds.
Government raids conducted in the aftermath of the media firestorm confirmed critics’ long-held suspicions. Authorities searching a truck attempting to leave the compound discovered more than 1,600 tiger parts destined for the illegal wildlife market, as well as 40 deceased tiger cubs stuffed into a freezer.
In a statement, Sybelle Foxcroft, cofounder of Cee4Life and leader of the investigation that exposed conditions at the Tiger Temple, attributes the 86 felines’ death largely to their treatment at the compound.
“I wrote publicly about Mek Jnr,” a male tiger exhibiting particularly severe symptoms during a 2015 visit to the site, “and I was just about begging the Tiger Temple to help him, but they ignored it all and said he was fine,” Foxcroft explains. “He was far from fine and he would end up dying in agony from this.”
If operations at the tourist attraction had continued, the activist adds, the 86 felines “would have still died of the same illnesses, but the difference would be that the Tiger Temple would have skinned the dead bodies, and used the body parts for sales.”
According to the Times, the government avoided releasing information on the tigers’ welfare for months. In November, for example, Kanjana Nitaya, director of Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office, said several tigers had died but declined to cite a specific number. She maintained that officials were “taking the best care of the tigers we can provide.”
Moving forward, Dina Fine Maron writes for National Geographic, the government will continue caring for the Tiger Temple survivors, ensuring that conditions are safe and designed to reduce stress. It remains unclear whether authorities will move the 61 remaining tigers to a different facility or otherwise change the way in which the animals are managed.