BANGKOK >> Thai wildlife authorities found 40 dead tiger cubs in a freezer Wednesday at the Tiger Temple, a controversial tourist attraction in western Thailand, and were investigating whether the carcasses were evidence of the temple’s involvement in the illegal wildlife trade.
The discovery came as Thai wildlife rangers were removing adult tigers from the temple in an effort to shut down the attraction after receiving complaints that the temple was trafficking in endangered species.
The temple, a Buddhist monastery that offered paying tourists close contact with tigers, has long been accused by conservationists and animal rights activists of exploiting and abusing the animals, accusations the temple has denied.
Wildlife officials said that only one of the dead cubs found Wednesday had been reported to the government as required by law and that police were investigating.
Tiger parts, while illegal to sell, are in high demand in Asia, particularly China, for use in traditional medicine. There is even a market for frozen tiger cubs, as the arrest last month of a Vietnamese man carrying four of them attests.
Representatives of the temple, Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, said that Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office had been notified of all of the cubs’ births and deaths and that the bodies were kept as proof that none of them were sold on the black market.
“We have declared all the deaths to the officials over years,” said Supitpong Pakdjarung, a former police colonel who runs the temple’s business operation. “They’ve known about these carcasses for a long time.”
The wildlife agency has been trying for months to shut down the Tiger Temple’s zoo. The temple has promoted itself as a spiritual center where people and tigers lived in harmony, and it has charged tourists as much as $140 apiece for the chance to bathe, hand-feed and play with the tigers.
The temple was already under investigation on suspicion of illegally trading in tigers after a former veterinarian reported that three live adult tigers had vanished.
Adisorn Noochdumrong, deputy director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, which oversees the Wildlife Conservation Office, said a temple staff member had told authorities about the dead cubs in the freezer.
“We just found them this morning,” Adisorn said. “There are 40 tiger cubs.”
He said the department would perform DNA tests on the seized tigers and the dead cubs to see how they might be related.
Temple officials, however, denied any wrongdoing. Supitpong said he notified officials in December when they came to see how many tigers were at the temple.
In a Facebook post in March, the temple said that it was normal for some cubs to die and that the staff had been preserving the carcasses since 2010. The post gave no indication of how many deceased cubs there were.
Teunchai Noochdumrong, director of Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office and the wife of Adisorn, said the cubs did not appear to be missing any parts. There was no indication yet how they died, she said.
Debbie Banks, campaign leader on tigers and wildlife crime for the London-based Environmental Investigative Agency, said the discovery of the cubs was disturbing given the underground market in frozen cubs.
While adult tigers have more value, particularly for their pelts, teeth and claws, the cubs can be sold for their meat and for their bones, which are said to have medicinal value, she said.
Tiger cubs also are sold in large jars of wine, either on their own or with bear paws, snakes and scorpions, she said. Some people believe such “wildlife wine” provides a health benefit, she said.
Zoos that offer tourists close contact with the animals and selfie opportunities are often fronts for breeding operations that supply the black market trade, Banks said.
“Forty frozen tiger cubs?” she asked. “Why would you keep them? When we know there is a market for frozen tiger cubs, it raises a lot of issues. I think it suggests something far more sinister.”
At its peak, the temple reported having 148 tigers, nearly all of them adults. The wildlife agency seized 10 of the big cats earlier this year before the temple won a court order halting the operation. After authorities successfully challenged that order, they resumed removing the animals Monday.
By Wednesday evening, rangers had taken 64 more tigers, Teunchai said. Authorities estimated that 73 tigers remained at the zoo and hoped to have all of them removed by Saturday. They said that the temple lacked documentation proving ownership of the tigers and that therefore, under Thai endangered species law, they belonged to the government.
By Wednesday, Supitpong appeared resigned to the tigers’ removal and the closure of the temple’s tourist attraction. The temple recently won approval to build and operate a zoo on a nearby site, and Supitpong said he was ready to move forward with that plan.
“Right now, we want everything to come to an end,” he said. “Please hurry and remove all the tigers. Once the state tigers are all removed, we will proceed with the zoo.”