Thai police said Friday they planned to question the abbot of a Buddhist temple about allegations that it was trafficking wildlife and trading animal parts, after authorities removed scores of tigers and tiger carcasses from the site in recent days.
The temple’s representatives, however, told BenarNews that they planned to sue the government over the seizure of more than a 100 hundred tigers from its premises, saying the move was illegal.
In Kanchanaburi province, police Maj. Gen. Suranit Phrombut announced plans to summon Abbot Luang Ta Chan of the Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno – which is known across Thailand as the Tiger Temple and a tourist destination in the province – over claims that temple staff had abused and was involved in the illegal trade of tigers and their parts.
Police were waiting for DNA tests on the animals before proceeding, the Bangkok Post quoted Suranit as saying.
Earlier in the week, Adisorn Nuchdamrong, the deputy director-general at the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, told reporters that it had obtained evidence of a letter showing that the abbot had an agreement with Laos to breed tigers. If DNA tests of specimens do not match domestic predecessors, it could reflect an international trade of tigers, he said.
The police’s plan to summon the abbot for questioning came a day after a lawyer representing the temple and a spokesman announced moves to sue the national park department for seizing 147 tigers. They called the seizures illegal and complained that the “tourist landmark of Kanchanaburi” had been damaged because the animals were taken.
The department claims 137 tigers were taken from the temple in Kanchanaburi’s Sai Yoke district, about 150 km (93.2 miles) west of Bangkok.
Saiyut Pengbunchu, a lawyer for the temple, said its legal team was considering a lawsuit on grounds that the department had overstepped its authority and defamed Wat Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno.
“We may sue it on grounds of abuse of authority,” Saiyut told Benar News by phone Friday, complaining that the temple had no revenues and staff had lost their jobs because the animals were taken away.
During a press conference on Thursday, Luang’s representative, Siri Wangboonkerd, refuted accusations that the temple and the abbot had performed illegal acts.
“To seize the tigers without a court order is an act of robbery. There is no clear accusation yet against the abbot, yet the authorities point the finger at the abbot,” Siri told reporters at the temple’s entrance. “This temple is the landmark of Kanchanaburi. The temple’s reputation is damaged and the tourist service has had to stop.”
But it is believed that the department took the action based on a search warrant from Kanchanaburi provincial court.
Thai wildlife officials carry a tiger on a stretcher after it was anaesthetized at the Tiger Temple, May 30, 2016. [AFP]
The Tiger Temple apparently bred tigers to attract foreign tourists, generating a lucrative business.
While removing the big cats earlier this month, the department found carcasses of 40 tiger cubs in a freezer along with amulets and ornaments made from tiger parts, leading to suspicion that the temple was linked to trans-national wildlife trade, a breach of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
“We are conducting scientific tests, we are doing DNA tests. And if we found any more infractions, we will prosecute the temple,” Adisorn Nuchdamrong told Benar News by phone.
“We do our jobs, we cannot help if they sue us,” he said, adding that the removed tigers were safe at a wildlife sanctuary in nearby Ratcha Buri province.
Edwin J. Wiek, the director of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, expressed concern over the conditions where the tigers are being kept.
“The tigers are with the national park department and each of them is kept in 8- by12-meter cages – too tight. Each of them needs a minimum space of 1,000 to 1,500 square meters to be comfortable. If this is only temporarily, that’s fine,” he told to Benar News by phone.