The last of 137 tigers was sedated and removed from Thailand's famous Tiger Temple Saturday, and the temple was effectively shut down. Five people – including three monks – were arrested on suspicion of wildlife trafficking and abuse.
The shuttering of the Buddhist-themed zoo comes after 40 dead tiger cubs were discovered in a freezer. The abbot and founder of the temple, Luangta Chan, has since disappeared.
The grim discovery came Tuesday as Thai authorities, working alongside the Wildlife Friends Foundation, raided the temple to remove all its live animals following allegations of animal cruelty.
Police Colonel Bandith Meungsukhum said the temple could be charged with carcasses without permission. In 2010, the temple said they had stopped cremating dead cubs bodies, the BBC reported.
The Buddhist temple, in Kanchanaburi province, west of Bangkok, is a tourist favorite, with thousands visiting every year and snapping a picture with a tiger. But animal charities have called for years for the temple to be shut down.
Other animals, including a bear and a binturong (a vulnerable type of bearcat), were also found inside the freezer, as were unidentified animal body parts.
"These animals were never registered with the authorities and who knows how they met this grizzly [sic] end," the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) said in a statement on its Facebook page.
The group, which has campaigned for years for the tourist attraction to be closed, called again for a total shutdown to end the "hideous" practices of the temple.
Tom Taylor, assistant director of the WFFT, said his group "wasn't surprised" at the discovery of the bodies.
"There has been a lot of controversy around the temple," he told BuzzFeed News. Taylor said he was hugely grateful to the efforts of the provincial police force, as well as the Department of National Parks (DNP), which was working on removing the animals from the facility.
"We have been campaigning for years and it had seemed like an endless battle," he said. "We are flabbergasted that it is finally happening and the temple is being brought to justice."
A search of a truck leaving the temple compound Thursday found more than 1,600 illegal items, including tiger-skin amulets, tiger pelts, teeth and 67 tiger-skin lockets with photos Chan inside.
Adisorn Nuchdamrong, the deputy director general of the DNP, said the dead cubs, believed to be one to two days old, were found in the kitchen area of the temple.
"They must be of some value for the temple to keep them," he told Reuters. "But for what is beyond me."
He confirmed authorities were working to remove the temple's remaining 87 live tigers, having already confiscated 52 from the site. The temple, officially known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, has remained closed to tourists.
On the temple's official Facebook page, temple officials denied claims the live animals were being removed on grounds of animal cruelty, instead alleging that many of the injuries seen in videos shown by the DWP of the tigers removed so far were the result of the department's own mishandling.
Taylor said the confiscated tigers would be rehoused in two wildlife centers, elsewhere in Thailand. They would not be released to the wild, because as they been bred and reared in captivity they were unlikely to survive.
The monks had resisted the order to remove the tigers, the Associated Press reported.
Local news channel Khaosad reported that authorities found the temple's gates locked shut and the monks resistant to their efforts on the first day of a now three-day operation.
Eventually authorities presented the temple's guardians with a court order and were allowed onto the premises.
The temple has been accused of wildlife trafficking before.
Most recently, a National Geographic investigation claimed to have found evidence the temple was illegally trading live tigers.
The investigation built upon a report by Australian nonprofit, Cee4life (Conservation and Environmental Education for Life), that appeared to demonstrate that the temple broke both Thai law and CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which governs the breeding and transfer of tigers. The report was handed to Thai authorities earlier this year.
The temple has vehemently denied the allegations.
It comes at a time when conservationists are increasingly concerned about the survival of the wild tiger. In the past century the animal's numbers have been decimated through a combination of deforestation, trafficking, and poaching. A hundred years ago roughly 100,000 big cats are thought to have roamed through 30 Asian countries — today that number is optimistically placed at 3,200 in just 11 countries.
Rose Troup Buchanan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Ema O'Connor is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ema O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.