More than half the tigers rescued three years ago from a Buddhist temple in Thailand where they served as a popular tourist attraction have died of disease, wildlife officials said Monday.
The tigers were vulnerable to illness because of inbreeding, leading to laryngeal paralysis causing respiratory failure, said national parks official Patarapol Maneeorn.
Eighty-six of 147 rescued tigers kept at government-run wildlife sanctuaries have died.
The DNA of all 147 confiscated tigers could be traced to six tigers who were the original breeding stock, said Patarapol, head of the department’s Wildlife Health Management Division.
‘This is just blame game’
The temple authorities, however, blamed the government for the deaths, denying official accounts that the big cats died from inbreeding and disease.
“They did not die because of inbreeding,” the temple’s caretaker, Athithat Srimanee, told Reuters.
“When they raided the temple three years ago, they did not say anything about infection, so this is just a blame game,” he said, accusing the authorities of locking up the animals in small cages. “At the temple, despite our lack of academic knowledge, we used kindness so the tigers lived in wide spaces and not in cages.”
The temple in the western province of Kanchanaburi served for more than a decade as a de facto zoo where tourists could feed tigers and pose for photos with them, despite concerns about possible mistreatment and suspicions of wildlife trafficking.
Police found tiger skins and teeth and at least 1,500 amulets made from tiger bones when they raided the temple, as well as 60 cub carcasses stuffed in freezers and in formaldehyde in jars.
Tiger parts, such as ground bones, are popular as traditional medicine in Asia. Tiger hides can sell for tens of thousands of dollars in China.
There are estimated to be more than 1,000 tigers in captivity in Thailand, but only about 200 in the wild out of a global wild population of about 4,000.
Patarapol said Thai authorities would do their best to care for the surviving rescued tigers.
“We are mobilizing team members, increasing our readiness and adjusting our plan,” he said. “We will provide the best care possible.”