By Max Constant
BANGKOK (AA) - A Buddhist temple in western Thailand accused of involvement in the illegal trafficking of protected animals could lose its license to operate as a religious establishment after the carcasses of tiger cubs and parts of other protected animals were discovered in its grounds.
Local media reported Sunday that the ministry of agriculture is to ask the National Buddhism office -- the secretariat of the Supreme Sangha Council (the highest ecclesiastical authority of the country's 200,000 strong monastic community) -- to confiscate the religious license for Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, known as the “Tiger temple”.
In a statement relayed by the country's only public TV channel -- Thai PBS TV -- the ministry said that the temple had used part of its 240-hectare grounds for keeping protected species, and not as a religious and agricultural area as specified in official documents filed with the ministry.
It also accused the temple of encroaching on protected forestry.
A police station in Kanchanaburi's Saiyok district -- where the temple is located -- has charged three monks and two temple employees with eight criminal offences after wildlife authorities and police officers discovered at least 40 dead tiger cubs, as well as parts of protected species, while removing some of the temple's 137 tigers.
Two days later, a monk and two men trying to leave the temple in a pick-up truck were stopped and found in possession of two tiger pelts and a thousand religious talismans fashioned from tiger skin.
Living hornbills, a dead boar, a dead leopard, a stuffed Asian golden cat, a stuffed leopard, and skeletons of Asia golden cats – all protected species -- were also discovered, along with the pickled tiger cubs which were found in jars.
The last tigers were removed from the temple Saturday and transferred to a wildlife protection center in nearby Ratchaburi province.
Phra Sutthi Sarathera, the temple's abbot, has disappeared since the operation began last Sunday, along with most of the monks who reside at the temple.
For years, wildlife activists have accused Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno of animal abuse and trafficking tigers and their body parts – allegations vehemently denied by the temple's monks.
Until this month, the monks had resisted attempt by the authorities to take away the tigers, but they relented when wildlife officers arrived on Monday with an official search warrant issued by a court.
The temple has been closed to tourists since the court order.
The temple is known locally and internationally for its tiger population and because it allowed visitors to walk alongside the tigers, take photos with them and feed them.
Conservationists have accuses the temple of illegally breeding the tigers and drugging them to appear tame.
A recent investigation conducted by National Geographic Magazine also claimed that the temple bred tigers to be sold for parts to smugglers for use in traditional Chinese medicines.
Thailand is long known as a hub for those trafficking in protected animals.