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.