Behind The Cloak Of Buddha – In Conversation With Cee4Life’s Sybelle Foxcroft
Founder of Cee4Life and the driving force behind the nine-year long investigation that resulted in the scathing Tiger Temple Report that accuses Thailand’s Tiger Temple of supplying the illegal wildlife trade, Sybelle Foxcroft has spent the last decade exposing wildlife crimes. It was on the basis of Sybelle’s report that National Geographic investigative reporter Sharon Guynup began probing into the temple’s activities and published an exclusive that added weight to the allegations against the temple. Their combined work is what lead Sanctuary to launch the ongoing #TigerTempleTakedown campaign.
Cara Tejpal speaks to Sybelle Foxcroft over email about the temple’s 147 tigers.
You first went to the Tiger Temple in 2007 as a Masters student researching captive tiger management. When did your suspicions of the temple’s activities arise?
I arrived at the Tiger Temple in mid April 2007 to do my one-year research report for my Graduate Certificate for Masters via the University of Queensland. The surroundings of the Tiger Temple are very beautiful, and on that first day it felt so very peaceful, until I saw how the tigers were living. The cages were terrible, they were not enclosures, they were rusted, small jail cells. Inside of them were some of the tigers, and the one at the end held an African leopard. Seeing the reality caused me instant sorrow. I thought I was coming to a beautiful sanctuary with trickling streams and tigers roaming free. It was nothing like that. But I believed that I could help by providing education and information on the needs of the tigers. I felt that the monks would appreciate this aid and I was extremely respectful to their plight. Prior to my arrival I had spoken with the then foreign manager of the Tiger Temple who informed me that the tigers were not owned by the temple but belonged to the Thai Government. I was also informed that the Thai Government had instructed that the Tiger Temple was neither to breed nor trade the tigers in their care.
But there in a rusted, barren cement cell was a beautiful tigress, whose name was ‘Sangtewan’. She had two four-month-old female cubs. It was a sight of both beauty and deep sadness. The beauty of this incredibly loving and caring mother tigress, cleaning her cubs, her beautiful voice talking to her cubs was in stark contrast to the rusty, cement, barren, jail cell environment. Very conflicting and confronting indeed. But as I mentioned, I thought that I would be able to help the Tiger Temple with this and ultimately get them out of those cages.
On my second evening there, I could not sleep because of the heat. My accommodation inside the Tiger Temple was close to the front gate and approximately 400 meters from the tigers’ cages. I heard vehicles coming in from the gate, but didn’t really pay any attention to them. But then I heard a tiger roaring and in obvious distress. As I couldn’t sleep, I decided to go for walk and see what was going on. I was oblivious to any criminal activity at this point. I had my torch and walked towards the cages, and there I saw about five or six torchlights pointed at a cage. The tiger was absolutely in distress but slowly the roar softened until it was silent. At that moment, I realised something very bad was happening, I turned my torch off and stopped, crouched down and kept watching. They put the two cubs inside a large bag, hessian I believe, and threw them into the back of a truck. I headed back to my accommodation in shock. The truck headed towards the temple gates and stopped for a moment, the drivers spoke with the Abbot and other staff of the Tiger Temple, and then drove off out of the temple gates. The cubs were screaming. I listened to them scream until I couldn’t hear them anymore. I can still hear them screaming when I think about it.
I knew then that I had just witnessed the illegal wildlife trade of two tiger cubs, everything I believed about the Tiger Temple had just been shattered.
Tell me a little about the nine-year investigation. How did you convince Tiger Temple employees and volunteers to talk to you?
The Tiger Temple and all its employees always knew that I loved these tigers very much. In 2009, I decided to go public about the reality of what was occurring at the Tiger Temple, this attracted a great deal of both criticism and support. Criticism due to the very controversial nature of the involvement of Buddhist Monks, and support from people who had had similar experiences within the Tiger Temple, whether as volunteers or visitors.
Over the years, when I would go into the temple, there were certain staff that knew me and new foreign volunteers that I would speak to openly about the situation. The Tiger Temple has always been very aware of my aim to protect the tigers; it was never hidden from them. Sometimes I would contact them and talk to them via email and sometimes I would talk to them inside the Tiger Temple. There are some very good people inside the Tiger Temple and over the years, they would contact me because of something that they had seen that had upset them a lot, whether that was physical abuse, health problems going unattended, and the ones that witnessed tigers disappearing. Cee4life, myself in particular, became the place that all the people came to when they were upset about what they had experienced. They had nowhere else to go and they needed to talk to someone about it.
I would like to add that most of these visitors, volunteers and staff that witnessed atrocities within the Tiger Temple were so very upset, and some were emotionally scarred for life. One ex-volunteer spoke with me recently about their experience in the Tiger Temple years ago. This volunteer worked in the Tiger Temple for quite a while, and seven years later was still heartbroken from what they had experienced and witnessed. This volunteer was crying and staring into my eyes, pleading with me “Why didn’t I see it then” and “I am a good person, I knew what they were doing, but why didn’t I do anything”. I comforted that person the best that I could. That was a very emotional moment for them and a very big insight for me to see this long-term emotional devastation that some people are experiencing.
What was the most jarring moment for you in these nine-years? The point at which you realised the scale of the investigation and the shock-value of your findings?
There were many extremely pivotal moments throughout the years, but I would say the most jarring was when I had to secretly meet with one of the Tiger Temples inner circle staff to be given evidence. The conditions were that I had to come to Thailand and that I had to meet with them alone. It was a leap of faith. When I was given the evidence and watched it with this senior temple staff member, the real scale of what was about to happen was both stunning and shocking. Although there had been a great deal of evidence on the illegal trade of the tigers, on viewing this evidence I knew then the scale of the investigation had reached a different level. It was rock solid and undeniable.
I realised also that this person who gave me this evidence had taken a huge leap of faith with me too. The seriousness of this situation, the danger involved in getting this evidence out, was immense on both sides.
What, in your opinion, would be the ideal outcome of the events catalyzed by the Tiger Temple Report?
The ideal outcome would be for all those who were directly involved in the illegal trade of the tigers to be de-robed, if monks, and charged with multiple wildlife crimes listed in the Thai WARPA Act and breaches of the CITES agreement. The same for other Thai or foreign workers who were and have been complicit to the wildlife trades and other crimes.
That the Temple will no longer be allowed to house tigers.
For all tigers to be confiscated and removed by the Department of National Parks (DNP), and for organisations, both national and international, to join together with the DNP with a focus to help aid and provide relief to these tigers and any other animals rescued from the temple.
Lastly, I would like the Tiger Temple Report to impact and cause a chain reaction of protection for all species that are subjected to wildlife trade and those that are heading to extinction. Without a doubt, we need the authorities of the world to step up and make some unprecedented changes to protect the last of the wild tigers and other iconic species, and to force a sharp and fast rise in the standard of captive animal welfare.
Ten of the temple tigers have been removed from the temple and placed in a captive facility by Thailand’s Department of National Parks (DNP). Do you feel that the remaining 137 tigers will be removed quickly?
I was very worried about the decision to only move five tigers per month to the DNP facility. This is too slow and there is great concern for the safety of the tigers. The Tiger Temple simply cannot be trusted with these precious endangered animals. I have since been informed that the speed of the tigers removal may be a lot faster than these initial 10, and right now I am relying on the words of Deputy Director General Adisorn Noochdumrong to have faith in the DNP. But yes there is still great concern for the safety of the remaining tigers.
How are the Tiger Temple authorities responding to the action taken by the DNP?
The Tiger Temple is making disturbing statements that they will get a zoo license and simply buy the tigers back from the DNP. If that were to happen, it would be utterly despicable and it would certainly shock the world so much that it would be likely to have heavy repercussions on Thailand’s CITES membership. However, I highly doubt the DNP will make any deals with proven illegal and international wildlife traders.
There’s also been a barrage of threats and abuse from Tiger Temple staff directed at Cee4life, and National Geographic. That was and is expected to continue.
Tiger Temple supporters question the sense in moving tigers from one captive facility to another. I’d like you to respond to them…
My response – the Tiger Temple is an illegal national and international wildlife trading, tiger killing venue, which cannot be trusted with these or any other protected species. Now the tigers can live without the threat of a terrifying clandestine death by wildlife trade.
It doesn’t matter what Tiger Temple supporters question because the one question they consistently stay silent about is the fact that the Tiger Temple is killing tigers for the illegal tiger trade. Their silence on that subject is deafening.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia.