Earlier this week, Thai authorities seized dozens of tigers from the country’s so-called “Tiger Temple” after years of accusations of animal abuse and wildlife trafficking. The Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Temple, as it is officially known, is located west of the capital city of Bangkok and became infamous several years ago as photos of tourists posing with tigers at the supposed sanctuary went viral.
During a raid conducted this week, Thai officials found 137 captive tigers, as well as 40 dead cubs kept in freezers on the premises.
"When our vet team arrived, there were tigers roaming around everywhere," Wildlife Conservation Office (WCO) director Teunjai Noochdumrong tells Kocha Olarn and Radina Gigova for CNN. "Looks like the temple intentionally let these tigers out, trying to obstruct our work."
The temple has long been a popular tourist site for visitors looking for a hands-on experience with the big cats. For a $273 donation, visitors to the self-proclaimed sanctuary were allowed to pet, feed, and bathe the suspiciously calm tigers, Sarah Emerson reports for Motherboard. Reports and investigations over the years have suggested that the temple not only drugged the tigers to keep them docile for tourists seeking selfies with the endangered animals, but also was actively involved in illegal tiger trade.
"We have been receiving complaints from tourists [that] they were attacked by tigers while walking them at the temple," Noochdumrong tells Olarn and Gigova. "We had warned [the monks] to stop this act; they didn't listen."
Currently, more than 2,000 wildlife veterinarians, civil servants, police officers and military personnel armed with tranquilizer guns are involved in removing the tigers from the temple. While many of the tigers are inbred and suffer from debilitating conditions like blindness and chronic illnesses, the discovery of 40 dead tiger cubs and body parts from other animals kept in a freezer cast an even darker shade on the day’s events, Patpicha Tanakasempipat reports for Reuters.
"Foreign volunteers at the temple today told us about it and showed us the freezer. Perhaps they felt what the temple is doing isn't right," Adisorn Nuchdamrong, deputy director-general of Thailand’s Department of National Parks tells Tanakasempipat. "They must be of some value for the temple to keep them, but for what is beyond me."
Tiger parts have long been important components in traditional Chinese medicine, and often fetch a high price on the black market. Temple officials have denied any accusations of abuse or wrongdoing, and stated that wildlife officials already knew about the dead cubs, Tanakasempipat reports. The temple claims on their Facebook page that they were instructed to freeze instead of cremate the cubs by a former vet to battle allegations of selling cubs.
"A number of the bodies are in a state of decay as they have been there over five years," Chris Coots, a temple volunteer, tells the BBC. "It would seem strange to keep the bodies that long if the intent was to sell them. This will be easily clarified by decomposition tests."
Thailand has long been a major hub for the illicit wildlife trade, despite attempts by officials to crack down on it in recent years. For now, though, the "Tiger Temple" will remain closed to tourists while authorities work to resettle the tigers, Tanakasempipat reports. So far, 61 tigers have been removed and will eventually be relocated to state-owned wildlife sanctuaries.