Thailand’s Tiger Temple – Temple of Lies
Today was all about a follow up visit to the infamous Tiger Temple here in Thailand. In 2008 Care for the Wild published an undercover report into the ‘temple’ that showed an array of issues including animal welfare concerns, public safety issues, illegal tiger trading and other illegal activity. Our report gained worldwide media coverage, is currently mentioned in Lonely Planet (who as a result no longer recommend visiting) and is still cited today whenever the tiger temple story rears again. With that in mind, it was once more time to go undercover and see if any of our concerns had been addressed.
The road to Tiger Temple was long. I was doing it in one day from Bangkok and it took about three and a half hours each way. As we neared the area of the Tiger Temple I was surprised to see quite how many ‘elephant parks’ there were advertised on signs down the main road. All had imagery showing tourists riding the elephants on land and in rivers, and when looking for my transport here I had noticed that many of the Tiger Temple tours now also incorporate an elephant park visit and ride, for an extra 1000 baht. That would certainly be a long day of animal abuse for any tourists.
We turned under the giant tiger archway into the Tiger Temple and past a giant tiger sculpture. Whilst the driver waited I paid my 600 Baht (about £12) for general admission. This may not seem like much but bear in mind I brought a bottle of coke for 12 Baht on route – so assuming that would be about £1 minimum in the UK, the 600 in local terms was the equivalent of around £50 or more in true terms.
Disconcertingly I had to sign a liability waiver on entry, saying in the case of any injuries (i.e. from tiger attacks) then the Tiger Temple would not be liable or responsible.
Before I went in I noticed a lot of talk of charity – one poster gave bank details and depending on how much you donated you could get free Buddha Tiger Temple themed collector coins. We do a lot of tiger work in Thailand and India, and are part of SSN (the Species Survival Network) and funnily enough I haven’t come across them in my line of work and I certainly haven’t noticed any monks at CITES this week.
Just before the entrance were some exotic birds in small cages – not always a benchmark of good welfare. There were already a lot or tourists, and there would have already been a lot for the morning ‘breakfast with the monks’ session where people pay large amounts of money to feed the monks and then hand feed the cubs. Incidentally there shouldn’t be any cubs (unless rescued) as it is billed as a sanctuary and international sanctuary regulations prohibit breeding unless part of a specialist international breeding program.
Walking past a lot of deer and wild boar bathing in some very green water I soon found the tigers. There were 7 on display, all chained up and ready for some tourist hassle. Staff (mostly western volunteers) and a monk stood by each tiger and people queued for a photo with the tiger. As much as I disagree with this I needed to blend in and experience the full package that tourists get and I was quickly ushered behind one of the tigers with the monk for a pic. My heart was racing – as unlike all of the other tourists, I was very aware of the risk of getting within biting and mauling distance of an adult tiger.
I also didn’t want to touch the tiger (one so as to not annoy him, and two so as to limit my risk of injury!), but I was forced to touch him and even had to resist very hard to not ‘lay on him’ as instructed. It was definitely seen as not brave to even be remotely concerned about the risks.
By this time there were at least 80 tourists in the area, and the stream of tourists continually lined up for pics. After a while we were asked to move as they unchained the tigers and prepared them for the ‘walking with the tigers’ part of the day, when tourists walk alongside the tigers to ‘tiger canyon’ – another area where photos take place and the same tigers are once again chained as props.
Four separate groups of up to 22 people lined up for this photo opp. Whilst I watched them prepare the tigers I saw a lot of examples of some very strong manhandling.
The tigers were way too placid – as a visitor I was in no place to say whether they were drugged or not, and personally I’m unsure if they were – I just think they were completely emotionally broken – animals often give up (people call it ‘training’ – but it’s actually called negative reinforcement where you break the will of an animal by repeatedly punishing it for misbehaviour and also by constantly ignoring its subtle calls for help).
There was a lot of dominance reinforcement going on, hitting with sticks (not very hard but hard enough), little bangs and punches on the nose and head, and lots of forceful grabbing of head and body to move and push around the tigers to get them to adhere to their day job – entertaining tourists and looking placid.
The walking with tigers was the biggest health and safety issue I saw (equal to the play time session – see later). The fundamental issue here was lack of control of the tiger. After literally a second or two the monk gave the tiger’s lead to the next tourist in line for the photo, it was then passed to the next tourist and so on. Key issues here – the dominance thing has not been established with strangers, a stranger is far more likely to panic if the tiger does anything at all off plan and would be extremely likely to let go of the chain immediately and also body weight and capabilities of each tourist as a handler was a big issue. In Battersea Dogs Home, where I once worked, we matched staff experience and handling ability to dog types – just to walk a dog. This was no dog – even young tigers are incredibly strong and incredibly dangerous and these were adults.
I didn’t partake in this, but I counted at least 82 people did, split across five groups. Anyone not taking part was really pushed to do it, including one couple with two kids, who had to say no a good three or four times before people stopped asking them.
After I went down to the ‘tiger canyon’ where all of the same tigers had been re chained in an old quarry area to be once more subjected to hours of photo propping. Since our report it seemed that shade had now been given, but the area was still hot and the tigers were definitely uncomfortable.
I saw absolute signs of distress/agitation – the body language was clear – there was tail banging, rigidity and deep panting on many. One tiger who was the most clearly agitated got up and protested. Within less than a minute he was pushed back down and back in for tourist photos – one of which immediately afterwards involved literally sitting on his back. This was outright animal abuse in its purist form.
There were two options – a free photo, or a special photo. Most paid for the special photo – involving sitting on the tiger, putting the tiger’s head on your lap, or generally being anywhere in bite range of the tiger. What’s more, and something I wasn’t previously aware of, is that the special photos also involved groups, and each tiger got hassled, so once you had had one of these photos, you then went out and were taken to another tiger, and another until everyone had had plenty.
This equated to each tiger being manhandled for around 100 visitors – just whilst I was there. There are also afternoon special activities. What struck me was how oblivious tourists were to the manhandling and body language of the tigers show clear distress and annoyance. How could this be anything more than exploitation and how could no one notice? I saw plenty of staff giving the tigers what looked just like water as a drink, but I also saw one monk with a special bottle, squirting it towards the tigers’ anus on various occasions. This was kept separately and I imagine this was the tiger urine used as a domination tool. Also here they were selling, for a ‘donation’ obviously, mock tiger tooth necklaces.
Next to the cub zone, where I watched the second most dangerous thing – tourists ‘enriching’ the young cubs, after having paid yet more money at ‘Tiger Island’. This involved teasing the tigers with large sticks in a small pool of water with plastic bags, shoes etc tied to them. Tourists and staff took part and the tigers were unchained. Staff stood nearby and built up the atmosphere by screaming and shouting each time a tiger jumped.
What again was obvious was that the tigers were being hassled. Most of the time they wanted to play amongst themselves but they were constantly harassed with the sticks and bags. They jumped and leapt right by the tourists and there was no one with any ability to stop an attack if it took place.
Also of note was that the island was basically some waste land with a tiny pool and any tiger than wandered off was quickly shunted back to the pool. Tigers that overplayed with other tigers or got too close were forcibly moved, and I witnessed one staff member repeatedly hitting and poking one tiger with a stick and pushing it back. The biggest danger I noted was once the session finished, people walked off and left the tigers. They walked away with their backs to a group of now highly charged and highly playful wandering tigers. Unbelievably dangerous.
Just by this was ‘Tiger Falls’ – a tiny area not worthy of its name with two younger cubs, also being continually hassled for photos – again, at extra cost. They were chained up and out for a very long time.
I also wandered ‘back stage’ and found where the tigers are kept. I had been told by one staff member there were 104 tigers here and by one, whose English was better, that there were 114. I had also overheard another tourist mentioning 114, so will go with this figure. Official government records say that there is 104. The official leaflet from the Thai government says that there are…….17. Somewhat out.
There were communal exercise areas shared by groups of cages, but none, bar one, had a tiger in it. All of the tigers were locked into their cages – all were very small, probably from what I could see about 20-30 sq m max and none had any enrichment at all – just concrete and bars and a bowl of water. The exercise areas were also dirty with empty bags in them and also empty dry dog food packets. This supports our initial report that showed tigers were not being fed appropriately. Conservative estimates show that this attraction must make in excess of $10m per year – they could afford better.
On the way out I passed a baron cage with no enrichment with an adult Asiatic Black Bear (Moon Bear). It was alone. In a small cage next door, there was a three-month old Moon Bear with a volunteer in with it. He was smoking, something I saw a lot of in the presence of the animals and whilst on duty (not normal practice in welfare and conservation!) and the bear cub was eating some fruit. I asked where the bear was from and it had just come in – the police had brought it in, it had been found or seized. I asked if it would be released. He said no, it would be too dangerous.
Digging deeper, I asked if the tigers would be released – again, he said no as they know only life in captivity. He did mention though that they were Indo-Chinese tigers and that there were only 300 in the wild. (Factually they aren’t – they are hybrids). He saw this as a good thing that they had so many, almost as a conservation benefit. Of note, there are many thousands of tigers in captivity worldwide – they do not add to the conservation benefits in any way of the fight against wild extinction and decline.
It had been a long and hard day, but a worthwhile one. Lots more to do back home but the truth is that nothing’s changed – in fact, tiger numbers have increased dramatically. I look forward to finalising our report and once more telling the world the truth behind the ‘temple’.