At least 40 dead tiger cubs, a dead bear, and various animal horns have been found on the grounds of Thailand’s famous Tiger Temple by wildlife officials. The bodies of the animals were discovered inside a freezer, where the temple also kept food for the tigers.
The discovery came during a week-long effort to remove and relocate all living tigers from the temple.
“We found 40 tiger cubs today, they were aged about one or two days when they died but we don’t quite know yet how long they have been dead,” Police Colonel Bandith Meungsukhum, a local officer told AFP. The police further said that the carcasses will be DNA tested to find out whether they were related to other tigers at the temple.
The Tiger Temple, also known as the Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, is a popular tourist destination in Kanchanaburi province, west of Bangkok.
The temple has been locked in a long-running dispute with authorities and animal rights organizations. The site has come under fire in recent years over the welfare of its tigers, but the temple operators had resisted earlier calls to remove the tigers. Some wildlife officials claim that Thai authorities are often hesitant to intervene in the temple’s affairs, to avoid disrespecting the monks.
“The temple never registered these dead cubs. They are illegal,” Adisorn Nuchdamrong, deputy director-general of the wildlife department, told Al Jazeera.
The temple is run by monks who look after the tigers. Since 2001, the temple’s monks have been accused of wildlife trafficking but have denied all allegations, and not been charged for any wrongdoing.
Animal activists and former workers have also accused the temple authorities of mistreating the big cats and confining them to small concrete cages.
Dozens of tigers have already been removed from the temple, in an operation begun earlier this week by a 1,000-strong team of police and wildlife officials. The site has been closed to the public since the raid.
Teunjai Noochdumrong, director of Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office, said that 40 tigers had already been taken away from the temple.
“There was some resistance from the community. They didn’t understand why we were taking them [the tigers] from the temple when they look so peaceful and fine at the temple,” Teunjai said, according to Al Jazeera.
“We tried talking to them, explaining to them that the tigers belong to the country.”
The recent discovery of dead cubs has raised concerns from welfare groups.
Edwin Wiek, head of the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand, said that discovery shows that the Tiger Temple has been involved in illegal breeding and smuggling activities.
“Under the CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] treaty, no wildlife farm or sanctuary can engage in the breeding of protected species,” Wiek told DPA News Agency.
“These animals were bred and hidden away. I believe that they were stored to be sold for parts on the black market.”
The temple has denied allegations from conservationists that the monks carry out irresponsible breeding programs, traffic endangered species, and illegally sell the tigers elsewhere.
The temple has long been a popular spot among foreign visitors who flock there to be photographed with the tigers for a fee. That practice has also caused Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation to criticize the temple for allowing tourists to come near and pose for photos with the big cats.
Adisorn Noochdumrong, the deputy head of Thailand’s parks department, said they would file charges against the temple for keeping the carcasses without permission.