Temple of the tigers
The felines nod off in the warmth of the sunshine, oblivious to the incessant clicking of cameras and apprehensive touches of the visitors ... RATNA KAPUR writes about a unique abode in Thailand's jungles.
Close bond -- So far, there has never been an incident of mauling or aggression.
IT is early morning in the Temple of the Tigers. Achan, the head monk, draped in the colours of the dawn, unlatches the door to a large metal cage. And Starlet and Skyward, two four-month-old tiger cubs, come bounding out into the lush grounds of the monastic retreat. Skyward has been desperately awaiting his release in order to perform his morning ablutions in the wild and not soil his cage. As soon as he finishes, Starlet pounces on him, knocking him off his balance. He promptly falls face first into his still steaming excrement and emerges with a very messy nose and whiskers. He looks about, and eyes an unsuspecting visitor, in gleaming white attire, who is approaching the cages. He races towards his chosen target, and before the visitor is able to comprehend the scene, Skyward grabs her leg, buries his face and paws into her dress, and pops up triumphantly, with a face slightly less soiled and the visitor's dress not so gleaming white.
Skyward and Starlet are two amongst an ever-growing population of tigers that now inhabit Luangta Bua Yansampanno Forest Monastery in Sai Yok district. In 1995, Phra Achan Bhusit Chan Khantiharo, received his first two wild tiger cubs in a Buddhist temple in Kanchanaburi province, 322 km north of Bangkok. Hunters had killed the mother and also tried to poison the two cubs, but they managed to survive. Achan together with the handful of other monks at the monastery began to care for and raise the two cubs, named Storm and Thunder, without any formal training whatsoever. Over the years, a gradual stream of tiger cubs was brought to the monastery. Some were injured. Others were brought by villagers who did not want them to grow up and become a threat to the village, and a few others were orphaned after poachers had killed their mothers. Over the years, the temple has became a famous sanctuary for tigers, deer, boars, peacocks, fowl, gibbons and horses.
Today the monastery has 10 adult tigers, Starlet and Skyward, and two new born cubs. For Achan, preserving these tigers and reintroducing the second generation into a controlled wildlife habitat has become the mission for the rest of his life. Twenty-five years ago, Achan was diagnosed with leukemia, and told he had only a few months to live. He decided to become a monk, and now believes that his obligation to rescue and care for the tigers is the reason why he is alive today. He wants to do whatever he can to help this species survive, to do his part, and then hopefully, leave this world. "I don't want to come back," states Achan with a quiet and complete resolve. This is his last rebirth, and then he will leave the circle of life and never return.
Life at the monastery is simple, with a handful of monks beginning each day with prayers and meditation. Thereafter, they sit under the broad canopy of the main Salla or open air hall, and receive offerings of food, fruits and vegetables from local inhabitants, villagers and townspeople each day. It is the only meal the monks will take in the day, and this ritual repeats itself on a daily basis. And during the course of the breakfast, Starlet and Skyward prance around the hall, nipping at the calves of visitors, or wrestling with the "tiger boys" who care for, and feed them. They dance around the peaceful Buddha statutes, upsetting priceless ornaments and relics through their playful shenanigans and pirouettes, providing an endless source of amusement and entertainment during the repast.
The propagation of a non-violent, Buddhist way of life has been integrated into a commitment to conserve wildlife by the abbot and his fellow monks. And Kanchanaburi is an exquisite setting for the monks and tigers alike a reclusive location surrounded by the serenity of thick forests and conducive to the quiet and meditative ambience of the monastery. The calmness of the setting is occasionally disrupted by the piercing wail of a peacock, rumbling growls of an adult male tiger, and at times, even the barely audible whimpering of the newborn cubs.
Ever since February 2004, the Luangta Bua monastery, more affectionately referred to as the "Temple of the Tigers", has been opened to tourists. Visitors can walk around the temple grounds, viewing the wildlife, including the tigers. Each afternoon the tigers are taken out of their cages for a "walk" to a dry, rocky canyon, where they lounge about, waiting for endless streams of tourists to pose with them, who carry back souvenir photographs that capture their bravado and fearlessness. In reality, many walk towards these rather docile, friendly and magnificent creatures, with great trepidation, wearing expressions that range from mild concern to extreme anxiety.
Rules for visitors
The rules for visitors are very strict. Visitors are requested to sign a release form upon entering the sanctuary. And there are detailed instructions provided regarding the code of behaviour around the tigers. There is a line drawn on the ground behind which everyone has to remain, except for the monks and their volunteer helpers from the foundation. Each visitor is taken by the hand by a "tiger boy" locals who have lived and worked with the tigers over a period of time and sat down amongst a small cluster of tigers. They can touch the tigers, some of whom are kept constantly distracted by milk tablets. Despite the fact that there are warnings all around the sanctuary that these are wild animals and unpredictable, there has never been an incident of mauling or aggression. Indeed, by mid-afternoon, most of the tigers are quite disinterested in all of the attention, and nod off in the warmth of the sunshine, oblivious to the incessant clicking of cameras and apprehensive touches of the visitors.
Achan sits patiently as the hoards of tourists descend, snap and ascend the canyon paths. He knows that their contributions are critical to fulfilling his dream to build a new home for the tigers. He occasionally stands up, stroking Saifa (Lightning), one of the more nervous and unpredictable tigers, or tickling the tummy of Phayu (Storm), the most placid cat of the lot. In perhaps the most exciting and intimate moments between monk and tiger, he gently places his thumb in the mouth of five-year-old Saengtawan (Sunshine) who suckles it like a newborn cub, wearing an expression of utter bliss and joy. Saengtawan's story is a lucky one. Her mother was killed by hunters shortly after she gave birth. Saengtawan had no hair as she had just been born, and was vulnerable. But she survived under the watchful eye, care and compassion of the temple monks.
Well planned diet
The tigers are fed on a diet of cat food, which is cooked, as well as chicken bones and are never exposed to the smell or taste of blood or raw meat. They enjoy a healthy meal twice a day, once early in the morning after their cages are cleaned and then in the afternoon, before their afternoon walk in the canyon. And apart from the monks and tiger boys, the tigers are also cared for by two Irish volunteers from abroad, whose professionalism and expertise is in short supply and a desperate need of the monastery.
Achan together with Dr. Somsak Wattanasri, president of the Foundation of Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampano, has envisioned an 8.1 ha sanctuary that will be encircled by a moat and become the "new home" for the next generation of tigers. Achan no longer wants cages for these creatures, but to restore them to their habitat and the sense of pride that is the hallmark of the grand animals.
The major threat to the survival of the tiger in Thailand is not hunting or poaching. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it is the encroachment of farming practices onto their natural habitat. There are less than 200 of these wild cats left in Thailand and therefore it is difficult for hunters and poachers to find them. The tiger's prey the Barking deer, the wild ox and the Sambar are being poached, forcing the tigers at times to move into human habitation to look for food. And finally, although the killing of tigers is illegal in Thailand, advertising products that ostensibly contain tiger bone is not. The law needs to be changed in order to impact on demand.
Not enough assistance
At the same time, a new consciousness around the preservation of the tiger is being propagated. This includes the idea that it is more profitable to keep these creatures alive rather than to annihilate them. The idea of a tiger sanctuary is intended to benefit the tourist industry, provide locals with employment while at the same time achieve its primary object the preservation of the tiger.
Work has already begun on dynamiting the rocky landscape to create space for the construction of the moat. The entire project is estimated to cost over 30 million baht (approximately one million CHF), though the end costs are likely to be much higher. There is an urgent need to construct the island as the monastery is unable to accommodate any more animals. There is also increasing concern over issues of safety as the tigers outnumber the monks and there is also not enough professional assistance at the monastery nor vets with expertise in the care and treatment of tigers.
Individual attention has become difficult to furnish. The project will be neither a forest nor a zoo. It is located somewhere in between the two. It is primarily directed towards preserving the second generation of tigers and stopping their numbers from dwindling, as well as to provide a space where the tigers can be observed and studied in their natural habitat.
The tigers and Achan, the monk who is the driving force behind this dream, are in critical need of donations for the daily feeding of the cats as well as for the construction of the "Tiger Island". If the project succeeds, it will provide a new lease of life to the tigers, and perhaps provide a release for Achan from his final one.
Further details about the "Temple of the Tigers" are available at www.tigertemple.com or by calling +66-34-53-557 or fax at +66-34-531-558
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