By Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai authorities charged three Buddhist monks on Thursday after they were caught trying to smuggle tiger skins and charms made from tiger parts out a temple which monks said was a tiger sanctuary but critics said was a money-spinning tourist trap.
The Buddhist temple west of Bangkok has long been popular with tourists who paid about $20 each to get in and pose for pictures with its tigers, and to feed cubs and walk among them.
But the temple had come under mounting allegations of abuse and illicit wildlife trafficking and authorities armed with a court order raided it on Monday to confiscate the 137 tigers found there and take them to a government wildlife sanctuary.
The discovery on Thursday of the tiger skins and charms, or amulets, made from skins in a pick-up truck, and jars containing the bodies of tiger cubs in the temple, pointed to an even more lucrative business than thought.
"The jars have labels, so I think they've made medicine here," said Adisorn Nuchdamrong, deputy director-general of the Department of National Parks, who has been overseeing the raid to remove the temple's tigers and search its premises.
Authorities found 20 glass jars containing baby tigers and tiger organs in a "laboratory" in the temple, reinforcing suspicion it was making folk medicine, he said.
Tiger parts are used in traditional Chinese medicine, a multi-million dollar business that has driven tigers in the wild to the brink of extinction and fueled the rearing of tigers in parts of Asia, especially in China.
"We will discover more as we search on," Adisorn told Reuters.
Two temple devotees and a monk found in the pick-up truck, and two monks who helped load it, were charged under wildlife laws, Adisorn said.
Representatives of the temple were not available for comment.
The confiscation of the tiger products followed the discovery on Wednesday of 40 dead tiger cubs in a freezer.
Wildlife officials suspect the cubs were being preserved for use in potions.
Thailand is well known as a hub for illicit trafficking of wildlife products, including ivory.
Activists had for years criticized the temple and urged tourists to shun it, and complained that wildlife protection laws were poorly enforced.
The Department of National Parks had removed 84 out of the 137 tigers found at the temple by Thursday.
Workers have been using tranquilizer darts to sedate the animals before lifting them into cages and on to trucks for the journey to the government sanctuary.
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel)