Almost 150 tigers were rescued from a Thai temple, now over half are dead

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BANGKOK, Thailand — Over half of the tigers rescued from a Thai temple three years ago have died due to infectious diseases and inbreeding-related illnesses.

In 2016, 147 tigers were removed from Thailand’s controversial “Tiger Temple” in Kanchanaburi Province, west of the country’s capital, Bangkok, that became a tourist attraction where visitors could pose with its resident large cats.

But on Monday, Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) announced that 86 of the 147 tigers rescued from the Buddhist temple had died. Tigers are classed as endangered by the World Wildlife Fund.

According to a department press release, the tigers died due to two reasons: a respiratory disease and Canine Distemper Virus, a serious, highly-infectious disease that often affects dogs but has been found in a wide variety of big cats and other species.

The department’s deputy director-general Prakit Wongsriwattanakul said in a statement that most of the rescued tigers were inbred.

When the tigers were removed in June 2016, they looked “fairly healthy,” Adisorn Noochdumrong, DNP deputy director general said at the time. The tigers were taken to a new home at a governmental sanctuary in Ratchaburi Province, about 90 km (56 miles) south of Kanchanaburi Province, where the temple was located.

‘Disaster waiting to happen’

According to Edwin Wiek, the director and founder of Thai NGO Wildlife Friends Foundation (WFF), the tiger rescue was a “disaster waiting to happen” as authorities took on a job that they had not properly planned for — and didn’t listen to the advice of organizations like his.

He said WFF had suggested three years ago the cubs and female tigers should be separated, and that all the tigers should be spayed. Instead, the tigers were kept in small cages, where disease could easily spread.

“The authorities should have asked for help from outside, but instead insisted on doing all work themselves,” he said. “Hopefully lessons will be learned from this case, but we will have to wait and see.”

CNN has reached out to the Thai authorities for comment.

Why the tigers were rescued

Some of the tigers were rescued after a grisly discovery.

In June 2016, authorities discovered the remains of 40 newborn tiger cubs in freezers at the temple. A cow horn, a deer’s antler and the body of a binturong — a Southeast Asian bearcat — were also discovered.

The Wildlife Conservation Office (WCO) began investigating the temple — and whether it was smuggling tiger parts. As part of a 2001 agreement with the WCO, the temple was allowed to take care of the tigers as long as it didn’t use them for profit or breed them. But authorities came under pressure to crack down, after tourists complained that they had been attacked by tigers while walking among them.

Soon after the discovery of the cub corpses, authorities armed with tranquilizer guns tried to capture the tigers, which were “roaming everywhere,” according to the WCO.

Five men, including three monks, were charged with possession of endangered animal parts without permission.

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