Ecocentric

Too Close for Comfort: Thailand’s Tiger Temple

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Everybody makes ill-informed decisions. This photograph, taken at a popular tourist stop in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, is a testament to a recent one of mine. Photos like these are the bread and butter of the so-called “Tiger Temple,” a sprawling monastery-cum-wildlife-sanctuary a few hours outside Bangkok, which functions both as a draw for tourist dollars and a home to over 70 tigers and other animals roaming the grounds.

Correction: The tigers aren’t exactly roaming. The tigers I saw during my visit were all chained, so that in the afternoons, paying visitors like yours truly can sign a quick waiver and dish over 500 baht — $16, roughly the equivalent of a (legal) massage in Bangkok — to get up close and personal with the tigers at the “Tiger Canyon.”

There, the animals are chained up and trained to sit quietly while tourists pose next to them. For an extra 1000 baht ($32), you can get your picture taken sitting on a tiger’s back, etc.

As Bryan wrote here last week, wild tiger populations across the globe are in dismal shape. Though by some estimates there are over 10,000 tigers in captivity in the U.S. alone, there are less than 3,500 wild tigers in the entire world today. Their numbers have suffered from habitat loss, loss of prey from human hunting, and poaching for their skins, body parts and bones, which are used for medicinal purposes. The same day I visited the temple, an article ran in the Bangkok Post that an enormous wildlife trafficking ring was broken up in Hanoi, a hub for the illegal wildlife trade in Asia. Over 1300 pounds of rare animal bones, including tiger and elephant bones, were confiscated in the raid.

The Tiger Temple’s past – and, according to critics, its present — is also linked with the lucrative tiger trade. According to the organization, the first tiger cub arrived at the monastery in 1999 after her mother was killed by poachers near the Thai-Burma border. The cub, too, had been sold to a businessman to be stuffed, but for whatever reason, was delivered to the temple instead, which had started to gain a reputation for collecting injured animals. That first cub died, but other cubs were later delivered from the hands of poachers to the temple. From those first few rescues, as the story goes, the tiger population has grown to 75 tigers living at the temple today.

To the temple’s critics, however, that population growth is a problem, chiefly because they say the temple is employing tactics which are illegal. A controversial report released in 2008 by Care for the Wild International (CWI) concluded:

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, among other things, that the temple has illegally traded its tigers with tiger breeders in Laos to mix up the temple’s genetic pool,  and that the temple does not have appropriate permission to breed tigers on property or enough information about the tigers origins or genetic makeup to meet international criteria for aiding tigers’ conservation. The report also writes the tigers are at risk of malnourishment and routinely handled too roughly by staff. The temple has denied wrongdoing or mistreatment of the animals.

Why are the temple’s tigers so tolerant of humans hanging around them? Despite rumors, CWI did not find any evidence of the tigers’ being drugged to stay docile for the tourists, nor has there been any other hard evidence found to indicate drugs are used. On the day that I visited, I asked Archie Ezekiel, a Canadian backpacker and volunteer at the temple, why the tigers seemed so mellow. He said, in line with the temple’s literature, that the tigers had just been fed (chicken and vitamin supplements) and were taking their regular afternoon snooze. “No matter what you do with animals there’s going to be controversy,” Ezekiel said. In the afternoon, he told me, there is a special session when visitors can observe cubs playing outside in less restrictive conditions. “There is no way you can tell me those animals are drugged.”

When I asked if he felt like this was a positive place for tiger conservation, Ezekiel said given the shrinking numbers of tigers in the wild, he did. “If this is what we have to do for people to see these amazing animals, then I’m all for it.”

But perception is everything, and places that put tigers on display as tame creatures could actually be damaging their cause. Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, the wildlife veterinary program officer of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, writes in an email: “Breeding tigers to such numbers in captivity might lead to the misconception that there are plenty of tigers, and protection of those dangerous tigers in the wild is not required anymore.” Schmidt-Burbach, who is based in Bangkok and has visited the temple himself, goes on to say:

I do not see how cuddling tigers could be an effective conservation measure…In my opinion, there is a valid threat in making tigers appear sweet and harmless; in real life they would not be, and any news on human-tiger conflict situation would cause adverse reactions by demonizing those wild tigers, making tamed captive tigers appear as the ‘better’ tigers.

It’s undeniable that it was striking to see the tigers so close. They are gorgeous, strong and scary. But knowing that in the abstract — or at the least from behind some fence — is more than enough. Some human-tiger incidents have been reported at the temple and other places like it, but nothing disastrous has happened yet. When and if it does, unfortunately, it’s the tigers that are very likely going to pay for it.

Perhaps naively, I didn’t really feel like I was in danger that day posing with the tigers. But I do have a moral hangover from the whole thing. As somebody who tries to avoid zoos, I personally found the spectacle of tigers on chains a little depressing, a feeling that was confirmed when I watched a staffer swat a beautiful cub on the nose. It wasn’t a hard swat, but there was something out of the natural order about watching a human discipline a tiger for a photo op. I guess that’s why this kind of role reversal is usually a circus act – and not an act of conservation.

5 comments
BillEdwards
BillEdwards

These tigers are being kept at a Buddhist temple by monks who have devoted their lives to their religious faith. A threshold issue is the inability of most Westerners to appreciate the difference between the Buddhist and Christian faiths. To Buddhists, all life is equally sacred, and all animals including humans have souls that are reborn again and again. A man may be reborn as a tiger and vice versa.

Buddhists do not consume flesh as they believe doing so is unethical and will adversely affect the soul's passage from one life to the next, and they typically do not tolerate its consumption in their presence. Devout Buddhists also care about the spiritual well-being of tigers and other animals as an animal which leads a pure life may be reborn as a higher being (e.g., human or something else).

Contrary to a claims by a poster in this thread, it is therefore absolutely no surprise that these devout Buddhists are not feeding the tigers red meat! The more pragmatic reason the tigers aren't fed meat is the belief that the tigers may be less likely to attack other animals and human beings if fed a strictly vegetarian diet (as explained by the head of the temple in a National Geographic special years ago). As regards whether a vegetarian diet with proper additional supplementation is necessarily an unhealthy one for tigers, bear in mind that one of about three dogs who have lived to the oldest recorded age for the species of 29 was fed a strictly vegan diet, certainly not the norm for an animal was direct ancestor survived on a primarily carnivorous diet. Which just goes to show that a diet typically consumed in the wild is not necessarily the best possible diet!

The opinion of experts on tiger behavior in the wild ceases to be expert when dealing with tigers that have been extensively socialized with human beings since they were cubs. And to my knowledge the Temple always or usually accepts only very young cubs. We now know that tigers, dogs and other animals are not robots blindly following instinct. This new understanding based on mountains of scientific research has formed the foundation of the current paradigm of proper dog training, which emphasizes the critical importance of extensive socialization during the short window of impressionability as a puppy. Genetics matter, but they matter less than environmental factors post-birth.

These tigers live in a completely unique environment that would be virtually impossible to recreate anywhere else. These monks do not fear death but rather view it as an unremarkable milestone on an endless journey. They spend endless hours meditating and controlling their emotional state. As tigers and other animals detect and react to emotion due to the release of pheromones they can scent, it becomes more understandable how the monks can live with the tigers in harmony, and of course the infant tigers are not only socialized by their human caretakers but by the example of mature tigers in the temple.

The above said, do not misunderstand me. I simply wish to explain how these monks are acting in a way consistent with their faith and that the results obtained are consistent with the unique environment without need for sedatives or otherwise drugging the tigers. But *I do not advocate keeping tigers as pets*!!! Tigers can be trained and socialized and thereby transformed. But *there is no margin for error* as there would be for even the largest dog, and humans are imperfect as is the training they give to others, and every tiger is an individual, not a predictable robot. I am not a Buddhist but rather an agnostic, and I recognize the reality that in the fullness of time, there will be a tragedy at that temple if for no other reason than that some particular tiger wasn't like the others. This is an acceptable risk for monks who believe life is an illusion, but it may not be for every tourist.

turnerbarr
turnerbarr

As someone who just "volunteered" there for 18 days to discover my own truth about Tiger Temple this past August, I must say that there is something very unholy about Tiger Temple. There are a number of problems with Tiger Temple, even omitting the drugging issue (which can't be substantiated unless you are a true insider or medical examiner and have complete access), the temple's claim that it is a conservation is false. This does nothing to help tigers in the wild which have a dwindling population of only 3,200 left (WWF). The money raised via "donations" first and foremost goes into building a huge new Vatican like temple out front, yet in the same breath the temple says they cannot afford to give the tigers red meat (which contains taurine, an essential muscle building nutrient). Their vision of releasing the tigers someday and re-training them for the wild is ridiculous and has never been achieved by experts in other species. As per the actual experience, yes, it is frustrating to see some of the staff "tease" the tigers. It also by and large feels like a circus, and most def. a tourist trap. I did a 8 post experience of it for my website, but couldn't stay longer because the place felt unholy to me.

http://www.aroundtheworldin80jobs.com/tiger-temple-abuse-volunteering-experiment/

If you are looking to participate in a positive animal conservation project, I highly suggest checking out Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.

http://www.aroundtheworldin80jobs.com/volunteering-jobs-with-elephants-in-thailand/

The elephants there are rescued elephants from the logging and tourism industries and all proceeds go back into the project and elephants. The owner, Lek, is an absolute champion of a human being. If you start doing some good searching via Google you will see pretty much every travel blogger who is on the ball is behind this organization. 


They also have other projects around Thailand if you are not in Chiang Mai that they can recommend - SaveElephant.org - can sort you out. 

Enjoy the land of smiles.

Turner

jkil
jkil

I am amazed that all the 'conservationists' have this rather patronising attitude when they authoritatively state that tourists visiting Tiger Temple will come back with a feeling that Tigers are sweet, non-dangerous animals.  Firstly, most people are not that stupid.  Someone who is THAT stupid, probably deserves to get mauled by a tiger anyway before they can spawn more stupidity.  Secondly, tigers are not like humans - they do not kill for recreation.  If an animal is well-fed, there is absolutely no reason for it to attack - unless it feels threatened.  The tiger temple serves a great purpose in giving people a chance to interact with tigers in a lively setting.  An average person comes out of the temple with respect, awareness and awe at the beauty and power of the tiger.  That is an achievement.  It is a fool's dream to think that any of these tigers can be released into the wild - they cannot.  Having accepted that, these tigers are kept in fine fettle and cared for.  Tourists might think that a volunteer smacking a tiger is cruel.  However when you are 500lb+, a normal pat would not even register.  What seems rough to the tourists is playful for tigers - see them playing with each other and you will realize.  It is not 'conservation' as you understand it in the conventional manner.  What do you want at the end of the day - protected tigers or no tigers?  Would you rather have just a skeleton of a dodo or would you rather have dodos being bred and raised in captivity?

cthodgson
cthodgson

@jkil There is a big difference in animals being bred and raised in captivity for conservation than an attraction to exploit and make money. Nothing about the Tiger Temple is for strengthening the population, if anything it is weakening it by allowing interbreeding. If I could see a dodo skeleton over one that was alive but was only a tool to generate profit, then I would have the skeleton any day.