SAI YOK, Thailand
— The last tiger, sedated and caged, left the Tiger Temple in Thailand
on Saturday in the back of a pickup truck. The abbot who founded the Buddhist-themed zoo has vanished. And five people, including three monks, have been arrested on suspicion of wildlife trafficking.
The removal of the last of 137 tigers after a weeklong operation effectively shut the tourist attraction, where visitors — many of them foreign tourists — could touch tigers and feed them by hand.
Conservationists had long believed that the zoo was a front for illegal trafficking in tiger parts, and on Thursday, the authorities said, they found their strongest evidence yet that monks and staff members were involved in that trade. A search of a truck leaving the temple compound found more than 1,600 illegal items, including two tiger pelts, tiger-skin amulets, tiger teeth and 67 tiger-skin lockets with photos of the temple’s abbot, Luangta Chan, inside.
Other grisly finds over the week included 40 dead tiger cubs stored in a freezer and 20 more preserved in jars.
The closing of the tourist attraction at the temple, Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, was a victory for conservationists in a predominantly Buddhist country where government officials often give deference to religious leaders.
The Wildlife Conservation Office has sought for months to remove the tigers and battled the temple’s lawyers in court before winning an order allowing it to start seizing the big cats on Monday. Thirty veterinarians, 60 parks department rangers and more than 250 others were involved in the operation.
Under questioning, those who were arrested told the police that the items in the truck had come from the abbot’s rooms at the monastery, officials said.
“Just because you are a temple or a monk doesn’t mean you are above the law,” Teunchai Noochdumrong, who heads the conservation agency, said. “The evidence we have is enough to file charges of trafficking against them.”
The temple promoted itself as a place where people and tigers could coexist in harmony. Tourists paid as much as $140 for the experience. Officials said the temple was making $5.7 million a year from ticket sales.
Much of the business of caring for the tigers was carried out by foreign volunteers, who also helped put a good face on the operation.
One of them was Tanya Erzinclioglu, a British
volunteer tiger coordinator who is passionate about the animals and worked at the temple for six years. Speaking frequently on behalf of the temple, she consistently denied charges that it was involved in wildlife trafficking.
But on Thursday, she witnessed the search of the truck that held the tiger parts, watching an officer hold up a pelt that he had pulled from the truck.
“I felt sick,” she said Saturday. “It was not only a slap in my face, it was disgusting.”
She said she felt used and betrayed by temple officials.
The day before the arrests, Ms. Erzinclioglu led officials to the 40 cubs in the freezer. She said that the cubs were being held as evidence of their births and deaths and that they were not part of any trafficking. She said she believed that their existence had been reported to the agency, as required by law.
But officials were shocked by the discovery of the frozen cubs and said they had received a report of only one being born and dying.
Similarly, they were surprised by the discovery of 20 cubs preserved in jars in formalin, as well as animal parts in 11 other jars.
The police say they want to speak with Supitpong Pakdjarung, a former police colonel who ran the temple’s business arm.
Reached by phone on Saturday, he said that the police had not contacted him and that he had no plans to talk to them. He denied, as he has many times before, that the temple was involved in the illegal wildlife trade.
“There is nothing to be investigated on me,” he said angrily before hanging up. “I don’t have any involvement because there is no illegal trading.”
Col. Bundit Muangsukhan, who is involved in the police investigation, said the authorities planned to examine how the temple had obtained its tigers. Temple legend has it that they were injured cubs brought by villagers so the abbot could care for them. Critics have charged that the cubs were acquired from poachers or through illegal trading.
Watcharin Wakamanan, the land use chief for Kanchanaburi Province, said it appeared the temple had violated the condition of its permit to use 391 acres for religious purposes.
“By the look of it,” he said, “this is not Buddhist activity they have been doing here.”