Wildlife authorities in Thailand have begun removing tigers from a Buddhist temple, after accusations of wildlife trafficking and animal abuse.
Three of the 137 tigers at the temple in Kanchanaburi province were moved on Monday. The over 2,000-personnel operation including veterinarians, WCO civil servants, provisional police and local military will last all week.
The monks, who deny all allegations, resisted at first but gave in when presented with a court order.
The tigers are being taken to animal refuges, authorities said.
Authorities armed with tranquilizer guns are still trying to capture dozens of tigers after the monks allegedly set some free to delay the process.
“Yesterday was mayhem,” Wildlife Conservation Office (WCO) director Teunjai Noochdumrong said on Tuesday.
“When our vet team arrived, there were tigers roaming around everywhere,” Noochdumrong said. “Looks like the temple intentionally let these tigers out, trying to obstruct our work.”
The Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Tiger Temple, a popular tourist destination, has for years resisted official efforts to take away the animals.
Visitors are able to feed the animals and take photographs for a fee, despite the temple being banned from charging admission fees or money.
Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office (WCO) said the temple’s 137 tigers posed a danger to visitors and that they were being mistreated.
The conservation office received a search warrant from a local court following failed negotiations with representatives from Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Temple
“We have a court warrant this time, unlike previous times when we only asked for the temple’s co-operation, which did not work,” Adisorn Nuchdamrong, deputy director-general of the Department of National Parks told AFP.
However, when staff from the WCO arrived Monday morning to remove the tigers, temple officials refused to let them in. After a half-day stand off, wildlife officers finally entered and were able to sedate eight tigers.
“We hope to gain more speed capturing them,” Noochdumrong said.
Monks at the controversial temple have been accused of illegally breeding tigers and animal trafficking.
Suthipong Pakcharoong, the vice president of the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Temple Foundation, said that the temple would comply with the court order but the relocation of the tigers would have a negative impact on the local economy.
“There is nothing illegal and dangerous at all,” said Pakcharoong. “If they do like this, it would affect the tourism industry.”
Thai authorities have long been under pressure to stop the business.
“We have been receiving complaints from tourists they were attacked by tigers while walking them at the temple,” said Noochdumrong. “We had warned them to stop this act; they didn’t listen.”
As part of a 2001 agreement with the WCO, the temple was allowed to take care of the tigers as long as it didn’t use them for profit or breed them.
However, the tigers were also allowed to breed freely, and many of them suffer from chronic illnesses and blindness, according to WCO.
A previous raid in February 2015 revealed jackals, hornbills and Asian bears kept at the sanctuary without the necessary permits.