Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua appears to have lost its star attractions. Source: Flickr
An operation to remove nearly 140 big cats from Thailand’s famous tiger temple has been completed, officials say.
Around 1,000 police, military and government personnel descended on the temple to expose a shadowy trade in tiger parts that feeds huge Chinese demand and threatens the few remaining tigers in the wild.
Monks at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua are being accused of animal trafficking and abuse.
Wildlife officials said they found 40 tiger cub corpses at the temple complex.
Along with nearly 250,000 people, Jay Z and Beyoncé posed with the tigers in 2015. Entry was 600 baht (US$17) with an extra US$20 to feed the cubs or to have a picture taken with an adult tiger’s head resting on a visitor’s lap.
Now the monks are accused of illegal trade in tiger parts.
The discovery of body parts increased suspicions that the temple was a zoo which engaged in unethical breeding and trafficking of the endangered species.
The wat first started taking in tigers nearly 20 years ago and developed into a profitable tourist magnet.
Activists accuse the temple of illegally breeding tigers and many tourists said the animals seemed drugged.
A Department of National Parks spokesman, Adisorn Nuchdamrong, told the media that 22 people had been charged with wildlife possession and trafficking, including 17 members of the temple’s foundation and three monks caught attempting to escape with a truck filled with tiger skins last week.
Forty tiger cubs were found inside a freezer. Tiger bones and body parts are used in Chinese medicine.
“We’ve confiscated all the hard disks of closed circuit cameras in this temple for police to find evidence of wrongdoing,” Adisorn said.
The temple opened in 1994 near a wild tiger habitat with its first cub found by villagers in 1999. Villagers continued to bring cubs to the temple, especially when poachers had killed their mothers.
The population of wild tigers is around 3,200, down from 100,000 in 1900. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Australia’s Conservation and Environmental Education 4 Life and other NGOs, claim that more than 5,000 tigers are farmed in China, 1,450 in Thailand, 180 in Vietnam and 400 in Laos.
The EIA’s Debbie Banks said she worked undercover at Chinese tiger farms that often postured as conservation centres. “These places are stockpiling dead parts in freezers. This [raid in Thailand] was just the tip of a trade that spans Southeast Asia and sees so-called tiger sanctuaries and farms secretly selling tiger parts and products on the black market for enormous profit,” Banks said.