Recently, a tourist was mauled by a tiger at Thailand's Tiger Kingdom. The attack happened after the man, Paul Goudie, stepped inside the cage to pet one of the big cats and resulted in the man being dragged from the scene. He sustained injuries to his legs and stomach and was later admitted to Phuket hospital where he was said to be in a stable condition. This wasn't an isolated incident. Attacks of this kind are happening all over Thailand in these parks, a quick Google search will reveal a slew of similar occurrences. A British student was left scarred for life after a 400-pound tiger bit through her thigh. A Thai woman suffered severe head and arm injuries after being knocked to the ground and mauled by a tiger, meanwhile a tourist from New Zealand was hospitalized for weeks after touching a tiger's head at a park in the north of Thailand.
Despite this, Thailand's "tiger tourism" is growing steadily in popularity. A scroll through your Facebook feed is bound to show someone you know grinning beside a sleepy-looking tiger or bottle feeding a cub on a recent trip to south-east Asia. These pictures are the bread and butter of places like Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom, offering visitors a once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with the big cats. By signing a quick waiver and handing over 500 baht (roughly €12) tourists can interact with the tigers, pose for photos, feed the cubs and even sit on their backs. An animal lovers dream. However what most smitten visitors don't realize is that these pictures come at a high price.
An investigation by Care for The Wild in 2008 on Tiger Temple revealed an abundance of disturbing findings. Tiger Temple is the oldest and most popular of the tiger parks, established in 1999 after a group of monks rescued a tiger cub when its mother was killed by poachers. What makes the temple so favorable is that it claims to rescue tigers from poachers, allowing them to live peacefully alongside the monks and aids in conservation. Firstly, the fact that a group of monks feel qualified enough to raise and train wild animals is questionable. However, instead of conserving this endangered species Care for the Wild found:
Although the Tiger Temple may have begun as a rescue centre for tigers, it has become a breeding centre to produce and keep tigers solely for the tourists and therefore the Temple's benefit. Illegal international trafficking helps to maintain the Temples' captive tiger population. There is no possibility of the Temples' breeding programme contributing to the conservation of the species in the wild.
The report claims that throughout the two year investigation, tigers kept disappearing and being replaced by new ones without any explanation. It is obvious that there is no conservation here, just seedy illegal trading and the breeding of hybrids within the park, which ironically makes them unsuitable for conservation. When you consider how important baby tigers are for the temple, (that's how they make the most money) it's no surprise they need a constant rotation. Furthermore, the cubs are bottle-fed daily over and over again. Keeping an animal well-fed and healthy is great yes, feeding it formula until it's spewing vomit is not. Oh yes, formula. Cubs are taken from their mothers at two weeks old and handed over to tourists.
Rumors abound that the tigers are heavily sedated so that they are safe to be around, however there have been no findings to actually support this. The monks claim that because the tigers have been handled from birth, they are used to humans. How many killer whales have been raised in SeaWorld that have attacked their trainers? Animals are raised from birth in zoos, that doesn't mean that their carers hop into the enclosures to frolic around with them. They are still wild animals with instincts: they are not meant to be cuddled and caged. One look through the photos at the tigers lolling around dozily immediately raises alarm bells. Tigers are chained to the ground, even though the temple claims they "roam freely." Between 1pm to 4pm every day, they are made lie in the 40 degree Celsius searing heat while young children clamber all over them.
The report found that staff would drag tigers into appealing positions for photographs, often punching and beating them. For the remaining 20 hours of the day, they are locked in concrete cages far below international standards without any enrichment. This leads to a plethora of psychological problems, from pacing their cages incessantly and chewing their own paws. I'm sorry, but why anyone thinks it's a good idea to get up close and personal to a wild animal under those circumstances is beyond me.
What I have described above is just the tip of the iceberg; you can read their full report here. Tiger Temple is just one example. This doesn't mention the Million Year Stone Park in East Pattaya, the Khumsu Chiang Mai Tiger Centre in the north or the recently opened Tiger Kingdom in Phuket. Through clever marketing and PR, these parks are dressed up to be something they're not. But advertising won't stop attacks happening every year like clockwork. By stepping into the personal space of a wild animal you are dancing on the toes of danger; it's unnatural. The saddest thing about all this is because the tigers are raised in captivity, they cannot be released into the wild.
It's no surprise to anyone that tiger populations across the globe are in abysmal shape. As is stands, there are less than 3,500 tigers in the wild today. This is due to habitat loss, human hunting and poaching. Tiger Temple is home to 122 tigers and breeding them to such large volumes in captivity can trick people into believing that there are plenty of tigers and protection of them in the wild is no longer necessary. It gives a false misconception; tigers in the wild are not sweet and harmless, a real life tiger-human situation would not result in the human sitting astride the tiger. This doesn't mean however, that wild tigers are to be demonized and left to fizzle out.
I'm an animal lover (if that wasn't obvious) and I fully understand how magical and enchanting it must be to get the chance to be so close to a tiger than you can feel the softness of its fur. But it's because I have so much respect for these majestic creatures that I know they don't deserve this. As much as I would love to pet a tiger, I know it's wrong. All animals, regardless of species, deserve to live their lives as nature intended, in the wild, away from human interaction. I feel the same way about SeaWorld and about zoos. Let someone cage you up for the rest of your life and see how you feel. Someday, there will be no tigers left and the human race will have to hold itself accountable. Conservation is the answer, but not in the form of Tiger Temple. If you are planning to visit southeast Asia I urge to please reconsider having these parks on your itinerary; it's not worth it for the sake of one photograph. A picture does tell one thousand words and in this case, none of them are positive.