KANCHANABURI (AFP) - Thai officials armed with a court order on Monday (May 30) resumed the removal of tigers from a controversial temple which attracts tourists as a petting zoo, but stands accused of selling off the big cats for slaughter.
On Monday afternoon, one tiger was tranquilised and carried away on a stretcher, while another was lured into a cage to be relocated from the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua temple, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.
Several others were due to be moved later to a nearby reserve, according to officials.
The temple in Kanchanaburi province has long proved a hit among visitors who flock there to visit the monks and be photographed - for a fee - next to the scores of exotic feline pets.
Animals rights groups accuse the temple of complicity in the black-market animal trade, making tens of thousands of dollars by selling off older cats for use in Chinese medicine in a hugely lucrative trade.
The temple has always denied those allegations.
However last year one of the temple vets turned whistleblower, handing the authorities three microchips he said were inside a trio of tigers who had disappeared. It has never been fully established what happened to those tigers.
Monday's complex operation was hampered by the monks who run the temple.
"The temple allowed tourists to come in... and they are feeding tigers while performing shows, which means the veterinarians cannot put them to sleep before relocation," an officer from the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Moves to confront the monks and confiscate the tigers have been staggered over recent months.
In early January there were thought to be at least 147 tigers inside the temple.
Ten tigers were retrieved in January and February, but the seizures then stopped as the legal wrangle deepened.
In February 2015 wildlife officials also conducted a raid and discovered dozens of hornbills, jackals and Asian bears that were being kept at the sanctuary without the correct permits.
The temple has been banned from charging tourists admission fees or money to take photos with the tigers but it goes ahead regardless.
For years the government has been seemingly powerless to resolve the issue, partly for fear of being seen to confront the clergy and also because officials readily admit they have nowhere else to put such a large number of tigers.