Dozens of tigers held captive at the infamous "Tiger Temple" in Thailand's Kanchanaburi Province were seized by wildlife authorities on Tuesday over allegations of wildlife trafficking. Approximately 40 tigers were removed in the raid, and officials told Reuters they plan to return for the remaining animals.
"When our vet team arrived, there were tigers roaming around everywhere," Wildlife Conservation Office (WCO) director Teunjai Noochdumrong told CNN. "Looks like the temple intentionally let these tigers out, trying to obstruct our work."
Tiger Temple, or Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, became a wildly popular destination for tourists wanting hands-on interaction with the temple's surprisingly docile tigers. For a $273 donation, two people would be allowed to wash, walk, and bottle feed the temple's resident tiger cubs.
The Theravada Buddhist temple, which advertises itself as an animal sanctuary, gained internet notoriety in 2014 when a surge in Tinder "tiger selfies" prompted people to question the ethical implications of posing with the big cats for social media.
"Guys think, 'If I can tame a tiger, then I'm worth dating—and I could tame you,'" Patti Stanger, a professional matchmaker, told the Wall Street Journal.
But wildlife groups have long suspected that Tiger Temple has operated as a front for the illegal wildlife trade.
Earlier this year, an on-site investigation by National Geographic discovered that veterinarians were cutting legally mandated microchips out of the tigers, and that several animals had inexplicably gone missing.
The nonprofit Conservation and Environmental Education for Life also found evidence that Tiger Temple had been illegally transporting tigers to and from its premises since at least 2004. Alleged veterinary records from 1999 and 2000 show that four of the temple's tigers were captured from the wild, and that one female was imported from a farm in Laos. And a leaked contract signed by the temple's abbot in 2005 reveals the "sanctuary" was actively involved with Laotian commercial tiger-breeding operations.
In 2007, an Australian wildlife management expert who gained access to Tiger Temple's private facilities for a research project told National Geographic that she witnessed monks drugging and mistreating tigers, removing young cubs from their mothers, and importing new animals so as to conceal that others had disappeared.
Both visitors and animal advocates have accused Tiger Temple of sedating its tigers so that visitors may approach them without being attacked.
"They [sic] were between 8 and 10 tigers laying around in various states of consciousness… All laying down, whilst workers spray water in their faces to get them to face the cameras," wrote one visitor of their trip to Tiger Temple.
According to the WCO, a search warrant was issued after Tiger Temple failed to comply with investigations into abusive and dangerous behavior surrounding its tiger programs. Temple officials refused to let authorities inside for nearly half a day. More than 2,000 people are currently involved with the capture and relocation efforts.
In 2010, the global population of wild Indochinese tigers was estimated at just 350 individuals. And while Thailand claims to enforce strict wildlife trafficking laws, the country remains the most active location for the trade of live tigers, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
All of the tigers removed from Tiger Temple will be transferred to state-owned sanctuaries, said the deputy director-general of Thailand's Department of National Parks. Temple officials have continued to deny accusations of illegal activity and animal abuse.