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The Temple Of The Tigers

by Jan McGirk, The Independent, Nov 4, 2004

Bangkok, Thailand -- The bass rattle beneath the monotony of the Buddhist chanting at the Luangta Bua temple is a deep feline purr. Pacing on all fours alongside the shaven-headed monks are the temple's tigers, their tawny fur mingling with the flowing saffron robes as the big cats are led through the grounds on a lead by their unlikely guardians.

A century ago, the high Buddhist lamas would meditate on tiger skins to symbolise their conquest of fear and desire. Now, Abbot Acharn Phusit Khantitharo has taken a more direct approach to conquering one of man's most primeval fears and, in doing so, has created a rare sanctuary for the endangered great cats.

Thailand's tigers are disappearing fast. Only 500 remain in the wild in the border area near Burma, where they are under constant threat from poachers. The cats in captivity face the even greater danger of the deadly Asian bird flu. Sixty feverish adolescent cats at Sriracha Tiger Farm face imminent lethal injections. Last month, 83 were culled after they contracted avian influenza at the tourist attraction outside Bangkok.

Away from the epidemic area, a small but growing population of the big cats have been offered a solitary haven on the fringes of the jungle in Kanchanaburi province, thanks to an eccentric monk.

Abbot Acharn Phusit has become an unlikely blend of Dr Doolittle and Siddhartha since establishing himself as the amateur guardian of abandoned tigers - seeking to train their offspring to hunt and return to the wild. He offers sanctuary to cats found wounded on the jungle's fringes or rescued from city dwellers overwhelmed by the power of their exotic pets.

Owners may revel in an animal's killing power or its ability to cause damage, but most find the vicarious thrill of tending to a 400lb feline capable of ripping your throat out with a single swipe is short-lived.

More than twice as many tigers live in captivity as in the wild of the world's forests and jungles. Luangta Bua temple serves as a unique halfway house for 13 of the animals, and the monks aim to breed more and return the next generation back to the wild.

The temple's first tiger arrived five years ago, woozy and bleeding from the blunders of a clumsy taxidermist, who had injected it with formaldehyde with the intention of later stuffing it as a decoration for a businessman's penthouse. The job was badly botched and villagers sneaked the tiny mewling cub to the abbot. Its mother had been shot by hunters and, despite the monks' efforts, the cub they named Thunderstorm eventually died. But another pair of orphan cubs was brought a few weeks later and they thrived. This time Storm and Lightning, named after their deep-throated roars and jagged markings went on to produce five healthy cubs.

"I only wanted to rescue the tigers, that's all," said Acharn Phusit, 53, who, aptly enough, was born in the year of the tiger. "But then I had to also nurse them, feed them, and educate them. As a Buddhist monk, I believe in reincarnation. I believe that in their past lives, these animals might have been my friends, father or mother... even my enemies. I love them."

Between prayers, there are restive tigers to wash and take for walks on leashes and the slender monks get tugged along by cats twice their weight.

The abbot has never questioned the repentant poachers nor the anxious pet owners who have dumped wild tiger cubs on his doorstep over the years. His odd menagerie continues to grow - along with the appetites of his feline charges. They bulk up quickly, and two males are mature five-year-old studs that the monks fear may soon fight over territory. The tigers are scrubbed free of their scent every day.

Even though Acharn Phusit has no formal training in tending tigers, all of his big cats appear healthy. For years, he fed them on milk tablets and vast amounts of dry dog food, hoping that kibble with vitamin supplements would satisfy them.

He figured that systematically denying the tigers raw meat would keep their bloodlust at bay and spare the deer, antelope, wild boar and cattle that share the grounds and could make convenient prey. The wild tigers, reared on a strict Buddhist timetable, mingle freely with the monks, who know each animal by name and personality. But experts insisted the diet of growing carnivores should include meat; the cheapest available is poultry.

After avian flu struck down a clouded leopard and a tiger at private Thai zoos earlier this year, Somchai Visasmongkolchai, the local vet, became worried about the dietary risks for the temple cats. He ordered all the tigers' chicken to be cooked and the bones ground up. Robert Punton, an Australian volunteer at the temple, said: "This sudden change gave most of the tigers diarrhoea, but the cats are surprisingly fastidious about it."

Events at the Sriracha farm proved the wisdom of those precautions. The zoo specialises in breeding big cats and their placid tiger cubs are, rather bizzarely, suckled by sows. The zookeepers claim the practice hastens the tigers' growth rate by up to 25 per cent, so they are soon ready for raw poultry in their feeding troughs. Only a month went by before an outbreak of the deadly bird flu forced keepers at Sriracha tiger farm to put down or bury their scores of big cats after they had devoured tainted raw chickens.

Tigers may be fearsome symbols of might, coveted for their striped pelts and the very essence of their bones and organs but the animals are increasingly vulnerable. Chinese apothecaries cannot get enough tiger parts for use in traditional medicines. There is a huge demand for tiger penis aphrodisiac, while bones are ground up to treat arthritis and muscular atrophy, and the claws are used as charms against insomnia.

Tiger fat is smeared on leprous sores, and tiger brain ointment dabbed on acne. The gamy meat is meant to enhance vigour and strength. A recent rise in the price of tiger skins, which can fetch up to $10,000 (5,500) each if they are smuggled to illicit bazaars in Lhasa, Tibet, makes tigers a lucrative target for poachers.

Since the temple is just three hours drive west of Bangkok, about 100 tourists come to stroke the unfettered tigers at play in an abandoned quarry every afternoon. They are warned not to tread on the tigers' tails and not to wear strong perfume. Lately, they have been required to sign a waiver in case of accidents.

Outsiders who witness the mild tigers of Kanchanburi falsely assume these cats with full fangs and claws are drugged. The roar of the tigers invokes an atavistic fear, mixed with awe at their muscular power. Visitors must fight against their instinct of self-preservation to approach the cats. Questions remain as to how tame can a tiger be. Will Travers, president of the Born Free foundation, worries that a mauling is only a matter of time. "The monastery routine lets the monks dominate the tiger hierarchy within a relatively small space," he said. "But tigers are not loyal; they can turn on you. I have the scars to prove it."

The temple's vet said that peaceful co-existence with the powerful animals required diligent observation and a knack for diverting them before they focus and pounce. "The monks give the tigers 'face'," Dr Somchai said. "If a monk spots a tiger staring at him, he will walk or look away so as not to provoke it.

"When tourists are here, the monks pet the tigers so they won't become agitated easily. Every tiger is different."

The individual attention lavished on each temple tiger is a stark contrast to the treatment at Sriracha farm, where they are made to bound through flaming hoops for the tourists and are confined to crowded cages. All the remaining tigers at the facility have been dosed with anti-flu medication and pork was quickly substituted for poultry in their feed.

Still, nearly a quarter of the 441 big cats have been culled after dozens died from bird flu. Masked disinfection teams sprayed the cages where the tigers used to pace - and dug mass graves for the carcasses.

Conservationists were alarmed that the dead tigers were not incinerated after their lung tissue samples tested positive for bird flu. Viruses tend to persist and re-infect, and the temptation for profiteers to dig up the valuable skins or tiger bones and smuggle them abroad puts black-market customers at risk as a result.

Steven Galster, the director of the conservation group, WildAid, called for a transparent investigation into the tiger mercy killings and wants carcass disposal to be supervised. "Whatever is really happening at Sriracha, more tigers and people are potentially at threat," he said.

Mass digging will soon be under way at Luangta Bua temple, but it will not be for burial pyres. Monks and soldiers plan to shovel out a deep moat in order to isolate 20 acres of forest land and transform it into a tiger island. The abbot eventually will transfer the temple cats there and let them breed the next generation without any human interference. "No more cages" has become a new mantra for Acharn Phusit in his attempts to raise funds for this vision.

At the cutting edge of the rehabilitation and training effort inside the monastery grounds is Lydia Finnegan. She spends up to four-and-a-half hours a day padlocked in a cage the size of a kennel, with a pair of tiger cubs clawing at her jeans.

She keeps the young cubs tucked protectively under her thighs, where they scuffle and mewl. A graduate in behavioural science, the Irish woman has volunteered to help the monks acclimatise the tigers to human contact and to protect them from the attentions of the curious tourists that venture to the temple. Like a protective mother, she snarls at visitors who approach her cage and warns against flash photography that could harm the cubs' developing eyes.

She sends text messages to friends with one thumb while tickling the scrawny tigers with her free hand. "Baby tigers need constant contact," she explains in a monotone to a group of backpackers. Ms Finnegan has no problem with the cubs she is confined with, preferring them to some of the humans that come to look at them. "Their questions are always the same. I am so bored I could scream," she said.

The abbot is seeking sponsorship for the New Home for Tigers project at Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery. Just 1 buys a day's feed for one tiger for further information see www.tigertemple.com.



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