BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai officials have raided a Buddhist temple that is home to more than 100 tigers and are investigating suspected links to wildlife trafficking, authorities said on Thursday.
Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua, or Tiger Temple, in Thailand's western Kanchanaburi province, is popular with tourists who pet, cuddle and pose for selfies with the big cats.
The temple has been dogged for years by talk of links to wildlife trafficking and its maltreatment of tigers.
A Thai official said at least 100 tigers had been impounded in raids this week and were being kept at the temple until authorities wind up their investigations. Thirty-eight hornbills, a bird species, were also seized.
"We're checking if the temple had official permits to keep them," said Cherdchai Charipanya, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment in the province of Ratchaburi.
The temple bills itself as an animal sanctuary and tiger-breeding facility, and its abbot has denied animal cruelty and illegal trafficking.
Thailand is one of the world's biggest hubs for wildlife trafficking. In recent years, the country has tried to shed its reputation as a source and destination for exotic meat and rare pets. But demand from China, including for tiger parts and ivory tusks, has fuelled a thriving trade in illicit wildlife.
Conservationists must try to reduce demand for tiger parts in China to save the animals, wildlife experts warned at an anti-poaching conference in Nepal this week.
In 2013, Thailand's then premier, Yingluck Shinawatra, pledged to outlaw any kind of ivory trade but there has been little progress. Yingluck was forced from office in May.
Kanitha Krishnasamy, programme manager for Southeast Asia at TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, urged authorities to look into the origin of the seized hornbills and tigers and to pursue legal action.
"We hope the investigations don't end with the seizure of wildlife, but results in legal action and a deterrent punishment for offenders," said Krishnasamy.
Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Tony Tharakan and Nick Macfie