It’s challenging for adventurous tourists and animal lovers not to fall into the many common traps awaiting them when travelling overseas. As well as the issue of ‘photo prop’ animals (animals that vendors in the street, bars or hotels carry around and then charge tourists to have a picture with), there is also the age old problem of animals being used as attractions. As a nation of animal lovers, the temptation to get up close to such exotic animals as gibbons, slow lorises, snakes, bears and even lions and tigers is often too much for us. But, by doing so, tourists can inadvertently be supporting a lifetime of abuse for these animals and encouraging an industry that causes suffering, killing and cruelty for the exact creatures that we profess to love.
One of the most famous animal attractions, and probably the most controversial, is the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The Temple is a popular tourist destination and every day a hundred tourists or more visit, hoping for a chance to get up close and personal with ‘rescued’ tigers. The Tiger Temple website describes itself as a sanctuary, started when locals brought some orphaned cubs to the temple for care and the Abbot took them in and cared for them. The official website claims that there are seventeen tigers at the temple, seven of them orphans and ten bred on site.
But the reality is very different. In 2008, wildlife charity Care for the Wild International released an undercover report called ‘Exploiting the Tiger’. The report used information gathered from a variety of sources between 2005 and 2008 and uncovered disturbing evidence of serious conservation and animal welfare concerns, including illegal tiger trafficking, systematic physical abuse of the tigers held at the temple, and high risk interactions between tigers and tourists. In 2013, promoted by a wave of media concerns about the Tiger Temple, their CEO went back to see if things had changed.
Unfortunately, not much had. The key issues at the time of the visit centred on animal welfare, health and safety and false marketing.
Animal welfare issues included man-handling of the tigers such as hitting or rough handling and constant disregard for the needs of the tigers, inappropriate housing facilities that fall severely short of international standards, over exposure to tourists and over handling, plus much more. Health and safety was a serious concern also – no alarm systems or emergency refuse areas were visible, tourists (including children) could sit within bite reach of the tigers and many even posed for photos with the tigers’ heads on their laps. Also, tourists were encouraged to walk the tigers on a lead – without any training or capability assessments.
In addition to all this, it is clear that the Temple’s positioning and marketing strategy, based on its identity as a temple come sanctuary with a conservation agenda, is built on a web of lies. None of the tigers at Tiger Temple have ever been released back into the wild, nor can they be under current conditions, and there is no evidence to suggest that Tiger Temple has contributed to conservation in any other way – financially or non-financially. In addition, despite their assertion that there are just 17 tigers at the temple, the actual figure from staff on the day was 114! Nearly all have been bred on site, although the Tiger Temple is not part of any internationally recognised tiger breeding program. In fact, no tiger that has been raised in captivity in this way and interacted with humans in any way can ever be released into the wild. Breeding, therefore, serves no other purpose other than income. The other thing of note is that the Tiger Temple is actually licensed by the Thai Government…..as a zoo!
The investigations also revealed something that may make even the most hard to convince tourist stay away – by going to the Tiger Temple (where you sign a safety disclaimer on entry) you are voiding your travel insurance for the duration of your visit to the Temple. This means that should anything happen you will not be covered and will need to pay for your own emergency treatment – including any repatriation to a hospital in your own country.
So, in summary – if you love tigers, care about animal welfare and want to be a responsible tourist we recommend that you do not visit Tiger Temple.