'Mayhem' as authorities try to capture 137 tigers at Thai temple

Story highlights

  • Wildlife officials moved in after complaints from tourists and concerns for their welfare
  • The tigers are being moved to a compound in another province

Bangkok (CNN)Authorities armed with tranquilizer guns are still trying to capture dozens of tigers at a controversial Buddhist temple in Thailand after temple staff allegedly set some free to delay the process.

"Yesterday was mayhem," Wildlife Conservation Office (WCO) director Teunjai Noochdumrong told CNN Tuesday.
    "When our vet team arrived, there were tigers roaming around everywhere," Noochdumrong said. "Looks like the temple intentionally let these tigers out, trying to obstruct our work."
    The "Tiger Temple," in Kanchanaburi Province west of Bangkok, has long been popular with tourists, who could walk among the tigers and pose for photos. Thailand's Wildlife Conservation Office (WCO) said the temple's 137 tigers posed a danger to visitors and that they were being mistreated.
    A tourist poses for a photo with a tiger at the Thai temple in 2012.
    However, when staff from the WCO arrived Monday morning to remove the tigers, temple officials refused to let them in. After a half-day stand off, wildlife officers finally entered and were able to sedate eight tigers.
    "We hope to gain more speed capturing them," Noochdumrong told CNN.

    Capture in progress

    The conservation office received a search warrant from a local court following failed negotiations with representatives from Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Temple, as the Tiger Temple is officially known. The temple says it is a sanctuary for wild animals.
    Over 2,000 personnel, including veterinarians, WCO civil servants, provisional police and local military are taking part in the mission to relocate the tigers to a compound in Ratchburi Province.
    Suthipong Pakcharoong, the vice president of the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Temple Foundation, told CNN that the temple would comply with the court order but the relocation of the tigers would have a negative impact on the local economy.
    "There is nothing illegal and dangerous at all," said Pakcharoong. "If they do like this, it would affect the tourism industry."

    Questionable conditions

    Thai authorities have long been under pressure to stop the business.
    "We have been receiving complaints from tourists they were attacked by tigers while walking them at the temple," said Noochdumrong. "We had warned them to stop this act; they didn't listen."
    As part of a 2001 agreement with the WCO, the temple was allowed to take care of the tigers as long as it didn't use them for profit or breed them.
    However, the tigers were also allowed to breed freely, and many of them suffer from chronic illnesses and blindness, according to WCO.
    The temple's tigers seen playing with a water bottle. The sanctuary had received criticism over the welfare of the animals.
    The temple also charged tourists to enter the compound and walk with the big cats, however Pakcharoong said the money was used to pay for the tigers' care.
    "We have to do that because that is how we earn the money and use that money to take care and raise our tigers," said Pakcharoong.