By Max Constant
BANGKOK (AA) - A Buddhist temple in Western Thailand accused of involvement in the illegal trafficking of protected animals has denied all allegations, claiming Friday that 70 dead tiger cubs and other animal parts discovered in a compound were the responsibility of a veterinarian who had left its employment and other staff.
Siri Wangboonkoed, a representative of the Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno -- also known as 'The Tiger Temple" -- told a press conference at the gate of the sprawling compound Friday that the allegations were a conspiracy by the veterinarian and the government agency in charge of protecting wildlife.
“Some of the temple staff have done this without the abbot’s [Phra Wisuthi Sarathera's] knowledge”, said Wangboonkoed, accusing the veterinarian, Somchai Wisetmongkolchai, of responsibility for any harm the tigers suffered.
“Somchai has been responsible for looking after the tigers for nearly 17 years,” he told the Bangkok Post.
On Friday, police asked the provincial criminal court to deliver an arrest warrant for the abbot, saying that tiger pelts were found in his room.
“How can he deny knowing anything," Khaosod news reported lieutenant-colonel Jaruwat Chanpen, of Saiyok district police station, as saying.
Saiyood Pengboonchoo, a lawyer for the temple, located in Kanchanaburi province around 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Bangkok, has said that Sarathera, was completely unaware of any undue actions taken against the 137 tigers living at the temple.
“The abbot is almost 70 years old, but [today] he showed up to demonstrate he is not running away,” said Pengboonchoo, as the elderly monk briefly appeared in a golf cart at the end of the press conference, only to tell reporters he was “feeling ill”.
It was the monk's first appearance since the scandal erupted at the end of May.
A police station in Kanchanaburi's Saiyok district 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.
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 May 30 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.