KANCHANABURI, Thailand (Reuters) – Wildlife authorities in Thailand have raided a Buddhist temple where tigers are kept, taking away 40 of the animals by Tuesday and vowing to confiscate scores more in response to global pressure over wildlife trafficking.
The Buddhist temple in Kanchanaburi province west of Bangkok had more than 130 tigers and had become a tourist destination where visitors took selfies with tigers and bottle-fed cubs.
The temple promoted itself as a wildlife sanctuary, but in recent years it had been investigated for suspected links to wildlife trafficking and animal abuse.
Wildlife activists have accused the temple’s monks of illegally breeding tigers, while some visitors have said the animals can appear drugged. The temple denies the accusations.
The raid, which began on Monday, was the latest move by authorities in a tug-of-war since 2001 to bring the tigers under state control.
Adisorn Nuchdamrong, deputy director-general of the Department of National Parks, said his team was able to confiscate the tigers thanks to a warrant obtained a few hours before the operation began.
“We have a court warrant this time, unlike previous times, when we only asked for the temple’s cooperation, which did not work,” Adisorn told Reuters.
“International pressure concerning illegal wildlife trafficking is also part of why we’re acting now.”
Officials moved seven tigers from the temple on Monday and 33 on Tuesday, leaving 97 still there.
Adisorn said the department planned to remove all of the tigers and send them to state-owned sanctuaries. Officials also found also found six hornbills, which are protected birds, at a monk’s residence, he said.
Monks at the temple were not available for comment.
Previous attempts to inspect the tigers were largely blocked by the temple’s abbots but in January and February wildlife officials removed 10 tigers.
Thailand has long been a hub for the illicit trafficking of wildlife and forest products, including ivory. Exotic birds, mammals and reptiles, some of them endangered species, can often be found on sale in markets.
The government introduced new animal welfare laws in 2015 aimed at curbing animal abuse, but activists accuse authorities of not enforcing the legislation.
The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the temple was “hell for animals”, which spent much of their lives in cement cells.
“The tigers … should be transferred to suitable sanctuaries and facilities that can offer them a better life,” the group said in its statement.
It called on tourists to stop visiting animal attractions at home or abroad.