BANGKOK – Thai police stopped a truck Thursday carrying two tiger skins and other animal parts as it was leaving a Buddhist temple where monks have been accused of being involved in illegal wildlife trafficking, a police officer said.
Soon afterward, authorities found 20 jars containing preserved young tigers at the temple, a national parks official said – a day after 40 dead tiger cubs were found in a freezer at the temple.
The discoveries have come as authorities have been transferring 137 live tigers, mostly adults, from the temple to animal shelters after obtaining a court order.
The temple in Kanchanaburi province, in western Thailand, is a popular tourist attraction that charged admission for visitors to take photos with tigers. It has been criticized by animal rights activists because of allegations it is not properly set up to care for the animals and flouted regulations restricting the trade of tigers.
Two men in the truck carrying the tiger skins were arrested and charged with possession of illegal wildlife, said police Col. Bandith Meungsukhum. He said a monk traveling with them will be arrested once he is defrocked.
An adult tiger skin can fetch anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000, according to Steve Galster, the director of Freeland, an organization that fights wildlife trafficking. Galster said he believes the temple was breeding tigers to sell them, either alive or in parts, into the lucrative illegal wildlife trade.
The truck was also carrying more than 700 vials containing tiger skin as well as many tiger teeth hidden in a suitcase, said Teunchai Noochdumrong, director of the government’s wildlife conservation office. Such vials are typically used as good luck charms.
“I am quite shocked,” Teunchai said. “We all have heard concerns and allegations about this temple. I would never have thought they would be so blatant.”
The young tigers preserved in the jars were found in the vet’s office at the temple, said Anusorn Noochdumrong, an official from the Department of National Parks who has been overseeing the transfer of the temple’s tigers to shelters. The animals’ bodies were preserved in an unidentified liquid, he said.
The temple’s English-language Facebook page, which has criticized government efforts to take away the tigers, claimed surprise at what was found.
“The recent discovery of the tiger skins and necklaces comes as a shock to us as well as the rest of the world,” it said. “We are disgusted at this discovery and we don’t condone this. We are looking forward to the authorities bringing the culprits to justice.”
The temple recently made arrangements to operate as a zoo, but the plan fell through when the government determined that the operators failed to secure sufficient resources. The monks resisted previous efforts to take away the tigers, but relented this week after police obtained a court order.
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