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The truth behind tiger tourism

Tiger entertainment venues are mainstream in Thailand, but is conservation the real focus behind the scenes? 

Words Carolyn Enting

I have a confession to make: I’ve had a tiger selfie in Thailand. 

It wasn’t planned , and it felt wrong – morally, and because it contradicted the laws of nature. These beautiful animals are natural predators, not the meek and mild pussycats these tigers appeared to be.

I was reluctantly photographed at Tiger Kingdom 

The staff assured me the tigers weren’t drugged and that the reason they weren’t dangerous was because they were raised in captivity and well fed. They claimed to be doing their bit for conservation by breeding these endangered animals and showed me an incubator filled with tiny baby tigers which tourists could view through a glass window. Later, as I stood beside a fully grown tiger lying on a table (how did it get up there?) the guide, who’d insisted on grabbing my phone to take photos, used one hand to peel away the skin around the tiger’s muzzle and snapped a photo of its teeth before picking up one of its paws and taking a photo of that too. It was repulsive. He then encouraged me to rest my head on the tiger’s body and wrap my arms around it. I refused for two reasons. One: every instinct was screaming, ‘what are you doing?! You are in a cage with a fully grown tiger who is a natural hunter and could pounce on you and have you for dinner in a flash. Two: something just didn’t add up here.

Captive tigers at Safari World, Thailand 

So I stood awkwardly beside the table as the guide rapped a bamboo stick beside the tiger’s head in an attempt to get it to lift its head for the photo – it didn’t oblige – and yes, I smiled, because
I always smile in photos. I can’t help it. But I felt sick and in that moment I made a promise to myself as a journalist and human being that I would not delete these photos until I’d found out more and done something about it. Then a few weeks ago I had a meeting with World Animal Protection, which has been monitoring the industry since 2010. Between March 2015 and June 2016 the global charity carried out its own investigation and visited 17 tiger entertainment venues in Thailand anonymously, including Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai which I had visited. 

The big question, aside from the injustice that these majestic animals are being bred in captivity as a money-making venture for the pleasure of tourists wanting tiger selfies (one in four tourists have their picture taken with a tiger), is that the numbers don’t stack up.

What I mean is that each of these venues has major breeding programmes because baby tigers are the most popular with tourists. So what happens to them when they’re all grown up?

World Animal Protection believes these tiger entertainment venues may be concealing an illegal trade in tiger body parts. In June 2016, after investigations into Tiger Temple in the Kanchanaburi province, 147 tigers were seized by Thai authorities; Tiger Temple is currently facing accusations of being linked to this illegal trade. And it turns out it’s not just the adult tigers who are victims. Thai government officials found 30 tiger cubs preserved in jars and 40 tiger cub bodies in a freezer during the Tiger Temple raid, as well as large numbers of amulets made from tiger bones, teeth and fur. The Temple also failed to account for three missing government registered tigers. 

“There is no evidence so far that any of the other venues referred to in the World Animal Protection report are involved in the unlawful trade of tigers or their body parts,” says wildlife veterinarian and advisor to World Animal Protection Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach.

Tiger Temple in the Kanchanaburi province 

”However, our research shows that at some venues there are significant discrepancies reported and observed tiger numbers that raises serious questions. Particularly, regarding the seemingly common practice of ‘speed-breeding’ captive tigers without any conservation benefits. The worrying thing for us is that this industry relies on a steady increase of young tigers because it’s mostly young tigers that are being used for tourist interaction. So an industry or venue that relies on only using tigers for the first two or three years, but then having to pay the upkeep of older tigers for the next 10 years, doesn’t really make sense either. So we are really asking questions. What happens with all the adult tigers that these venues are accumulating? There are some things that don’t add up.”

Currently there is no concrete evidence of illegal trade involvement and Schmidt-Burbach says the Thai government is now investigating. 

World Animal Protection has called for a ban on all tiger breeding for the industry and more transparency. Alarmingly, there has been a 33 per cent increase in the number of captive tigers in the last five years, which will continue unless we as tourists say NO.

Alarmingly, there has been a 33 per cent increase in the number of captive tigers in the last five years, which will continue unless we as tourists say NO.

There are approximately 3890 tigers left in the wild. At the beginning of 2016 there were 830 tigers in captivity at entertainment venues in Thailand, compared with 623 when World Animal Protection first researched this issue in 2010. Through their investigation World Animal Protection has uncovered major welfare concerns. Tiger cubs who are separated from their mothers, two or three weeks after they are born; young cubs are being presented to tourists, constantly viewed and mishandled hundreds of times a day, which can lead to stress and injury; tigers being punished through the use of pain and fear to stop unwanted or aggressive behaviour; most tigers are housed in small concrete cages or barren enclosures (with a space of less than 20sqm night and day) with limited access to fresh water; and 12 per cent of tigers observed showed behavioural problems commonly related to stress, such as repetitive pacing and biting their tails.

Julie Middelkoop, head of the Wildlife – Not Entertainers campaign at World Animal Protection, says they are asking tourists to think about the welfare of the tigers. “We’re calling on the travel industry to stop promoting and profiting from tiger cruelty. If you can get up close, hug or have a selfie with a tiger it’s cruel and don’t go.”

World Animal Protection is also calling for governments worldwide to investigate tiger entertainment venues and close down those that show evidence of illegal trade, cruelty or neglect. World Animal Protection has put pressure on travel companies such as TripAdvisor to end their sales and promotion of these venues.  

“It’s a mainstream thing. When you visit the bigger venues you will see up to 40 tour buses in the parking lots. These tourists are not aware of the deeper meaning of tiger conservation and what it means to be there,” says Schmidt-Burbach. “We believe the needs of tigers, as all wild animals, can only be met in the wild so using them for entertainment will always lead to some suffering and concerns from the animal welfare side. Viewing tigers in the wild is an option in some countries. If you do that we recommend doing that responsibly with an ethical tour operator to make sure you are not impacting negatively on the tigers.” 

Do I feel proud of my tiger selfie? NO! But fate took me there and now I’m able to speak out about it.

World Animal Protection recently informed Good magazine that this article helped make a tangible difference and a positive step towards protecting these majestic animals from exploitation and cruelty. We want to congratulate First Group Travel – all of its 69 independently owned stores in New Zealand have committed to not sending their customers or selling tickets to tiger tourism venues where you can take tiger selfies or watch tigers perform. That includes not selling tickets to venues where you can riid or watch elephants perform too. For more information and how you can help visit worldanimalprotection.org.nz/wildlife-not-entertainers

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