A few days ago, the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a wildlife rescue organisation I worked with in 2013, posted some photos of a very emaciated-looking sunbear that they had found in a temple in the Prachuap Khiri Khan province. This little girl, who they affectionately named Kwan, had been found all alone in a bare, cell-type room at the temple. They uplifted this malnourished creature and provided what veterinary treatment they could, placing her in intensive care back at WFFT’s veterinary clinic. Sadly, though, they just could not save her, and she passed away shortly after her long-overdue rescue.
Animals held at temples in Southeast Asia are a common occurrence. Probably the most infamous is the widely-promoted “Tiger Temple” in Kanchanaburi province. This is a very popular tourist destination, and attracts floods of people daily even in the off-peak season. As a major travel attraction, animals at this temple generate significant business for Thailand, which means the animals need to appear happy and healthy to visitors. So what of lesser-known places that keep wildlife?
This is half the point of WFFT’s mobile vet clinic (set up and maintained with the help of the Born Free Foundation) – to travel and assess the conditions of animals kept in public and private establishments. Three years ago WFFT visited the particular temple little Kwan was held at, and found several species of animals (bears, primates and more) in appalling conditions. Edwin Wiek, the director of WFFT, personally handed a complaint to the DNP (Thailand’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife), but it seems that direct action was not taken. Six months later, WFFT re-sent this complaint (with full information, including veterinary assessments and photographs attached), but again did not hear back. Last year WFFT once again traveled to the temple, only to find new animals held in the same unhygienic conditions. Please note that WFFT itself has to be extremely careful with how they conduct themselves. The team cannot simply go and uplift animals without permission from authorities as this could lead to their own sanctuary being shut down. They are dealing with an unbelievably corrupt environment, so care must be taken to ensure they do absolutely nothing that could be deemed as unlawful. WFFT is an incredible organisation that does invaluable work, but you can probably imagine that their aim of rescuing wildlife from dismal situations has made them more than a few enemies.
Finally in August last year, WFFT received communication from the DNP that this particular temple had been charged with illegal wildlife possession and had been shut down. However, in the following months Edwin discovered that the DNP’s actions were not swift enough – he received information that not only were many animals still held by the temple, but that a bear had passed away from illness and was being skinned for its pelt. This ongoing saga finally resulted in WFFT gaining permission to treat remaining animals at the temple – which is when they came across little Kwan.
As it stands, yet another bear had also died in the confines of the temple. WFFT helped remove the remaining four bears from the temple – unfortunately WFFT does not currently have the capacity to house these animals, but they have pledged ongoing support for the bears at the rescue facility they had been moved to, and will provide food, veterinary treatment and enclosure upgrades where necessary. At least for a few of the temple’s animals there was a positive way out.
While in discussion with friends and family members about this situation, the question was asked: “Why?” As in, why hold animals in a dark room?
The main, obvious reason to use animals is for money. Those beautiful, enticing holiday places in southeast Asia that boast daily elephant rides are using their animals as a lure to make money. Tourists just love it. They will gladly pay money for this sort of experience, and tell their friends how wonderfully the animals are treated. The reality, however, is that baby elephants are poached from the wild for these ventures, and that their greater herds are killed. Babies go through the elephant ‘domestication‘ process, and the end product is a submissive, empty animal that will live its days to serve. Those subdued tigers at the Tiger Temple will never be released to the wild; there is no conservation effort there whatsoever. Once again, it is simply a way of attracting foreigners to spend their coin.
So what is the point of having animals at the temple mentioned in this post? These animals were not making anyone money. Little Kwan could not have been skinned for her pelt – she was so malnourished that most of her hair had fallen out.
People I have discussed this with back home have been absolutely horrified. The endless Facebook comments WFFT has received in regards to Kwan’s story show that there are so many people who have been mortified by her ordeal. And yet, this sort of abuse happens everywhere, even in first world countries (blasphemy I know!). People neglect their animals. They come into possession of living things and end up putting them somewhere where they are “out of sight, out of mind”. I shudder to think of the state of some pets I’ve seen at friends’ houses. It’s everywhere.
Traditionally, and very generally-speaking, there is a typical difference in the way animals are viewed in places like Southeast Asia; less companions, more servants to our wants and desires. But the world is [very slowly] changing, and I do not personally believe ‘culture’ is a good enough reason to mistreat an animal in one’s care, or poach from the wild. As always, I can only implore travelers to carefully choose their travel destinations and activities. If you really want to get close to beautiful wildlife, support a conservation effort like an ethical national park, or help out at a sanctuary such as WFFT.