Last week, Thai officials moved in on the temple in an operation that saw them start by seizing many of the 137 or so tigers that were kept on the site. But what they discovered when they started looking around the rest of the temple made headlines around the world. Initially, police found 40 dead tiger cubs kept in a freezer, along with other pieces of wildlife including parts of a bearcat. The temple claim that the cubs were kept as a record of their deaths, something the police are not too convinced by.
As the authorities continued to search the site, the situation at the temple seemingly got murkier and murkier. They soon found the remains of other animals, including that of a bear and leopard, among further bits of wildlife, while one of the monks was caught trying to flee the temple with tiger skins and amulets crafted from tiger parts. Now, Thai police have charged at least 22 people from the temple, including three of the monks, with wildlife trafficking offenses.
Originally, one of the prime tourist attractions in Thailand, visitors could pay $17 to visit the temple, and an extra $22 to bottlefeed the cubs or get a picture cradling an adult tiger's head in their laps. So popular has the temple been, which claims to show how the Buddhist monks live in harmony with nature, that it has even attracted big names such as Beyonce and Jay Z.
But for years there have been rumors and accusations about the practices of the temple. Videos have emerged of staff at the site hitting the big cats, while many have suspected that the animals were drugged or heavily sedated, making them easy to manage and more biddable. Add to that allegations of illegal breeding and trafficking, and conservationists and wildlife charities have long been suspicious.
The temple itself heavily denies all accusations against it, claiming that there is no evidence of maltreatment, and that the video footage of the employee punching the tiger was aberrant behavior not indicative of wider abuses. In response to the dozens of dead cubs found in the freezer, and others stored in jars, the authorities say that it is not yet clear as to why they were being kept. The temple says that they changed their normal practices of cremation for any cubs that died, and instead took to keeping them as a record of the deaths to prove that they were not involved with selling parts.
With the operation at the temple now complete, which involved over 1,000 personnel, it seems the wait is on to find out for certain whether or not the Tiger Temple in Thailand really was just a tiger conservation site that has been grossly accused, or if all this was cover for more nefarious uses as a tiger farm.