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Authorities Find 40 Dead Tiger Cubs In Freezer At Thai Buddhist Temple

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's go now to Thailand, where the authorities are removing the last of more than a hundred live tigers from a temple west of Bangkok. This comes a day after a truly grisly discovery. Forty tiger cub carcasses were found in a freezer there. And today three Buddhist monks have been charged with the possession of illegal wildlife. Michael Sullivan has more.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi - a big draw for day-tripping tourists from Bangkok, who would sometimes shell out a hundred bucks or more to snap selfies cuddling the big cats or bottle-feeding the kittens.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Anyone that hasn't had photos yet?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah? Come right up. Come, come, come.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: The Buddhist temple turned tourist attraction billed itself as a spiritual retreat where people could get close to nature, including tigers. But conservationists have long smelled a rat.

JOHN ROBERTS: As much as you'd heard little whispered things around the corner about tigers disappearing, to actually find dead tigers in the freezer, I think it didn't surprise anybody that it was going on. But I think it must have surprised quite a few people to find such evidence of abject trading.

SULLIVAN: John Roberts is director of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. He thinks the Tiger Temple is just the tip of the illegal trafficking iceberg. And he's not alone.

TIM REDFORD: This is just one of many places that tigers are being bred, they're being traded.

GREENE: That's Tim Redford. He's program director for the anti-trafficking group Freeland in Bangkok. Tiger Temple officials have denied any wrongdoing. But Redford says such places are perfect locations to launder wildlife, including tigers.

REDFORD: There's so many centers with tigers and other wildlife that's being exploited for tourism. And all of them pretty much have zoo licenses, which allow them to do this. However, lax law enforcement means that most of these centers are breeding tigers like mad. And I think it's just beyond the capacity of the authorities to monitor it all.

SULLIVAN: And they're worth big money in Southeast Asia and especially in China, used in traditional medicines or served at upmarket restaurants. This week's raid, Redford says, is a positive step in the effort to curb the illegal tiger trade. John Roberts hopes it's not just a one-off.

ROBERTS: I think because this has been a campaign against one particular place that has caught headlines around the world, and I guess going after it sends messages, but there are many other places that are operating that nobody seems to be complaining about.

SULLIVAN: He hopes they start soon. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.