The world’s wild tigers struggle for survival. There are possibly fewer than 3,500 tigers left on our planet, scattered across 14 range states in increasingly isolated enclaves. Numbers are believed to be declining even faster than anticipated, and tigers now occupy a mere 7% of their historical range. International tiger trade has contributed a great deal to the demise of wild tigers and is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It is also banned domestically in many countries, including Thailand.
This is why I was saddened to learn that Expedia offers two Thailand itineraries that include visiting Tiger Temple, a popular tourist attraction where guests pay to interact with live, adult tigers and their cubs. The tours, listed on Expedia’s website as “Tiger Temple Visit and War Memorial Private Tour”, and “Floating Market, River Kwai Bridge, and Tiger Temple Tour” describe Tiger Temple as:
“a Buddhist monastery that has dedicated itself to providing sanctuary to all wildlife, and is committed to preserving the endangered tiger. Man and beast live here harmoniously. From its humble beginnings in 1994, the monastery has become a haven for the protection and rehabilitation of all animals.”
While this description of the temple sounds nice, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. A recent investigation by an international conservation NGO, Care For The Wild International, shows that Tiger Temple is not a sanctuary, and, despite payments being deceptively labeled as “donations”, none of the profits generated by tourism go to tiger conservation, or to improve the caretaking of the temple’s tigers. The temple does not rescue or rehabilitate animals – in fact, they have been cited for illegal trafficking of tigers across the Thailand border, a practice that is only helping to decimate the few remaining populations of wild tigers.
Although the temple officially claims to have 17 tigers, seven of which were orphans – the reality is that, according to staff, they have more than 100. Some of the tigers may have been poached from the wild, but most of them were bred on site for the sole purpose of making a profit. It is important to note that international sanctuary regulations prohibit breeding unless part of a specialist international breeding program. Tiger Temple is not part of any accredited breeding program, and as such, is not a “sanctuary” in any sense of the word. Temple employees have told investigators that none of their animals will ever be released into the wild.
Most of the temple’s tigers are kept in small, bare enclosures, well below international standards, for the majority of the day. Fed on improper diets of dog food and scraps, the tigers are manhandled, hit, sat on and generally forced to perform for the public. An animal behavior expert who visited the temple in 2013 noted that the tigers were:
“clearly in distress/agitation –– 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 expert also saw “a lot of dominance reinforcement going on, hitting with sticks, 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. Monks carried bottles of tiger urine which they would spray in the faces of misbehaving animals - an act of extreme aggression to a tiger.” The “mystical bond” that the monks share with the tigers is based off of intimidation and fear.
Another reason why Expedia’s promotion of Tiger Temple is so disturbing is that tigers are extremely dangerous, unpredictable animals and can never be tamed. A full-grown tiger is 12 feet long and can weigh over 500 pounds. Even playful swipes from the animal can easily kill a person, which is why it is illegal in most countries for the public to come in contact with an adult tiger. However, at Tiger Temple, guests are encouraged to sit or lay on full-grown adult tigers, place the tiger’s head in their laps, and “play” with groups of the animals, stimulating them and increasing their natural drive to hunt and kill. It’s entirely possible that visitors could be severely mauled– or worse – by interacting with the tigers. It would be gravely irresponsible for anyone to recommend a visit to this dangerous attraction.
The facts are simple: If you think Tiger Temple is some kind of spiritual tiger sanctuary, it isn't. If you think they rescue abused tigers, or that the tigers will be released into the wild, they won't be. If you think that a tiger wants to live in a small bare cage, have a chain around its neck and have tourists sit on its back, I'm pretty sure it doesn't. Tiger Temple is nothing but a glorified petting zoo where you are risking injury, or worse, while contributing to the suffering of once magnificent animals.
The Tiger Temple is unsafe, cruel, and fraudulent, and should not be patronized by anyone who truly cares for these great creatures. A myriad of reputable wildlife NGOs have condemned the Tiger Temple for its misleading and cruel use of tigers, including the World Wildlife Fund, the International Tiger Coalition, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the International Trust for Nature Conservation.
Upon learning the truth about Tiger Temple, several travel companies, including STA Travel, Frontier, and Jet Star have dropped the attraction from their itineraries and no longer recommend it to their customers. We demand that Expedia join them by removing the Tiger Temple from their tour listings immediately.
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