Thai authorities found 40 dead tiger cubs in a freezer during a raid on a Buddhist temple Wednesday.
Authorities say they don't know why the cubs were kept but plan to investigate. The temple, for its part, says the cubs died of natural causes and were preserved by a veterinarian, possibly to prove that the bodies had not been sold on the black market.
The "Tiger Temple" in Kanchanaburi province charged admission and let visitors pose with tigers, The Associated Press reports.
This week's raid was prompted by allegations that the Buddhist monks were illegally breeding and trafficking tigers.
"The temple, a popular tourist attraction, has been criticized by animal rights activists because of allegations it is not properly set up to care for the animals and flouted regulations restricting the trade of tigers," the AP reports. "The monks resisted previous efforts to take away the tigers, but relented this week after police obtained a court order."
Officials with Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) have been transferring the temple's adult tigers to shelters elsewhere. In the process, they made the grisly discovery of the 40 frozen cubs, as well as the body of a binturong (or bearcat) and the organs of other animals, the Bankok Post reports.
The monks have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
On the Tiger Temple's Facebook page, the temple re-promoted a post from March denying that the temple was engaged in selling tiger cubs to the black market. As part of their defense, the monks said tiger cubs that might appear to be "missing" had died of natural causes and that their bodies were still on site at the temple:
"[A]s happens in life, cubs do occasionally die for various reasons, most often when a new mother lacks the experience to properly care for them. In the past, as per Buddhist customs, these tiger cubs were cremated.
"In 2010, the ex-vet of Tiger Temple changed this policy. Instead of cremation, the deceased cubs were preserved in jars or kept frozen. We have documented all the deaths from 2010 and have photographic evidence of them still being within the Temple."
The veterinarian no longer works at the temple, but on the Facebook account, the temple suggests that the vet might have made the policy change to provide proof that the temple was not illegally selling cubs or cub parts on the black market.
The temple alleges that DNP officials were "fully aware" of the presence of the cub bodies.
There is a thriving black market for tiger parts, for use in luxury goods and traditional Chinese medicine.
The World Wildlife Fund has accused the Tiger Temple of selling tigers and tiger parts "for an enormous profit."
The WWF said in a statement that the temple does not have a license to keep tigers and "has repeatedly ignored Thai Government prohibitions against breeding tigers in captivity and allowing contact with the public."