Animal rights activists were celebrating across Thailand Friday after wildlife department officials converged overnight on an infamous "Tiger Temple" in western Thailand to begin the removal of 70 of the temple's 147 big cats.
Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yanasampanno has been operating as an illegal open-air zoo for years and has been subject to accusations of wildlife trafficking.
Local media reported Friday that the animals were sedated at the temple in Kanchanaburi Province, close to the Myanmar border, before being trucked to a wildlife conservation center in Ratchaburi Province, 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the temple.
For years, hundreds of tourists have visited the site daily where many have their pictures taken while patting one of the wild cats.
Prices are from 500 baht ($15) for entry, to $50 for a picture of a tiger with its head in your lap.
Edwin Wiek, a Dutchman who founded Wildlife Friends of Thailand, an organisation that has long campaigned against the temple’s commercial use of the tigers, praised the overnight operation.
"This is a good beginning. It is a victory," he told Khaosod news site, adding that they had initially only taken five tigers out of caution.
"They can’t possibly take 10 or 20 tigers at once. They have to take care of the tigers and tranquilize them."
The removals occurred in the wake of an article in National Geographic magazine that accused the temple of wildlife trafficking.
The magazine, which based its story on a report by the Australian NGO Conservation and Environmental Education for Life, reported that the temple had sold several tigers to a breeding center in Laos.
Saiyood Pengbooncho, a lawyer for the Tiger Temple, admitted that an "exchange" took place with the Laotian center, but said that no money had changed hands.
Earlier this month the temple said it was considering legal action against the magazine.
The seizure of the five tigers on Thursday night is part of an agreement between the temple and Thailand's Wildlife Department that stipulates that a maximum 70 of the 147 animals are to be removed.
"If the condition of the five tigers is normal, officials will remove more of them, but they won’t take more than 70. The rest will stay with us while we file for a zoo permit," Penbooncho said.
Thursday's removal was the first successful such seizure. In April 2015, monks and temple volunteers blocked government vehicles from leaving the compound with the tigers.
Despite several incidents, temple officials claim that the animals are tame and not dangerous.
Last May, the temple’s abbot, Luang Ta Chan, had his face and an arm badly mauled by one of the animals and had to undergo surgery.
The attack took place after the abbot placed a rope around the tiger’s neck and tried to walk him.
The temple is estimated to have earned about $2.8 million a year from tourism.
Animal rights organisations have continuously denounced the conditions under which the tiger and other protected animals were kept.
In 2015, the Chiang Rai Times reported the founder of wildlife protection organisation One Green Planet as saying that the temple is "at the heart of the unfortunate wild animal selfie trend that has emerged in the past few years."