RATCHABURI — Conservation officials revealed Saturday that more than half of the 147 tigers confiscated from the infamous Tiger Temple have since died from disease.

Thanya Netithammakun, chief of the wildlife conservation department, said officials are working with Mahidol University to investigate the death of 86 tigers held in Khao Son and Khao Prathap Chang wildlife sanctuaries.

Officials believe that the big cats may have died of laryngeal paralysis, because they exhibited symptoms prior to their arrival at the sanctuaries in 2016. The disease causes difficulty breathing. 54 of 85 tigers died at Khao Prathap Chang wildlife sanctuary, while 32 of 62 tigers died at Khao Son wildlife sanctuary.

The animals died one after another over the course of three years despite being under the proper care of veterinarians, according to officials. They believed the animals might have caught the disease by immune deficiencies from inbreeding.

Wildlife activists have long accused the Tiger Temple, known officially as Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, of animal abuse and of trafficking tigers and their body parts. The temple has vehemently denied the allegations.

The abbot of the temple has urged officials to return the tiger cubs back to his care. He denied allegations of mistreatment and wildlife trafficking.

“It’s karma for tigers,” Phra Visuthisaradhera said. “When the tigers were here, everyone took great care of them. No one intended to harm them, while villagers were able to make a living.”

“If the department can’t nurture them, then bring them back and I’ll take care of them at the temple. I also want to probe into the carcasses to ensure they don’t end up on the black market,” the abbot added.

Some of the fallen tigers, which are being used as evidence in the wildlife trafficking case, were preserved and are being kept at a research center for further study. The rest of them were buried on site.

Thanya said experts from Mahidol University are conducting autopsies on the carcasses, with the result expected this week.

The scandal dates back as far as 1999, when the temple received its first tiger cub from a local. Two years later in 2001, the number had risen to seven before the forestry official seized the animals since the temple had no license to breed them. They were eventually allowed to stay as veterinarian Somchai Visetmongkolchai agreed to be their custodian.

Over the next 15 years, the tigers bred and the number of animals at the temple rocketed to 147 in 2016.

Wildlife activists began to raise concerns about mistreatment in 2007 after the temple marketed itself as a tourist attraction to raise funds for feeding the growing number of tigers. The temple ultimately broke into the international spotlight when National Geographic exposed the temple’s involvement in a wildlife trafficking ring in an investigative report published in 2016.

After years of push back between officials and the temple, the wildlife conservation department raided the temple with a search warrant on May 30, 2016. Inside, they made a gruesome discovery of dead tiger cubs and preserved animal parts, which were believed to be destined for illegal, for-profit breeding and trafficking.

The 147 tigers were then arduously removed from the temple and kept at two wildlife sanctuaries across Ratchaburi as evidence in an ongoing investigation.

Despite the raid, there are over 100 animals still living in the temple, which has been reopened as a zoo.

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