Wildlife tourism is big business – worth up to $250 billion annually. Globally, it condemns an estimated 550,000 wild animals to appalling cruelty and suffering. Because the pain and distress is largely hidden, visitors are usually oblivious to the horrific abuse and conditions endured by animals for the objective of tourist entertainment.
Captive tigers in particular are victims of irresponsible tourism in Asia – their suffering fueled by a callous demand for tourist selfies and photo sharing on social media. Tigers are wild creatures. To make them behave in an unnatural manner to be the entertainment and props for tourists entails a lifetime of punishment and cruelty in the name of training and submission.
These majestic and endangered predators are bred, used and abused to create to boost the profits of wildlife attractions, travel companies and sometimes illegal traders.
In the wake of the recent scandal and closure of Thailand’s Tiger Temple, World Animal Protection’s new report, ‘Tiger selfies exposed: a portrait of Thailand’s tiger entertainment industry’ is the first comprehensive study of the tiger entertainment industry in Thailand.
Thailand is a major hot spot for tiger tourism, home to a fast-expanding tiger tourism industry with a 33 per cent increase in captive tigers in the last five years. In 2015- 2016, there were 830 tigers in captivity at entertainment venues in Thailand, compared to the 623 in 2010.
The total number of captive tigers in Thailand is even higher, with government comments suggesting up to 1,500 tigers in zoos, private venues and other facilities. And it could be estimated that 250- 375 tigers could be bred every year in Thailand, just from tigers at entertainment venues.
Here are some of the appalling conditions witnessed by the investigators at tourist venues:
Separating Cubs and Mothers
- Venues typically separate new-born tiger cubs from their mothers within two to three weeks of birth. They then handraise them artificially and allow tourists to bottle feed the cubs from only a few weeks of age.
- Early removal of tiger cubs enables the venues to breed from tiger mothers more frequently. In 2010 WAP documented statements by Sriracha Tiger Zoo claiming birth rates up to 6-9 times higher than in the wild.
- The separation causes both cubs and mothers great stress. In the wild, they would stay together until the young tigers are about two years old.
- Tigers being punished using pain and fear in order to stop aggressive, unwanted behavior. One staff member told researchers that starvation is used to punish the tigers when they make a ‘mistake’.
- All 17 tiger tourism sites that WAP visited offered cruel and unnatural activities and performances. These included tourists being able to get up close and take selfies with adult tigers and tiger cubs alike.
- Tiger entertainment venues have been allowing tourists to feed adult tigers.
- And Sriracha Tiger Zoo and Samui Aquarium and Tiger Zoo offer circus-style tiger performances for visitors. These performances typically required the tigers to perform – including jumping through burning hoops,casuing the animals extreme distress.
Most tigers in Thailand’s entertainment venues are being kept in severely inadequate conditions.
- 75 per cent of the observed tigers were kept in cages below 20sqm space per animal for most of the day and night, a far cry from the 16-32 kilometers they would roam in a single night in the wild.
- Often these cages were concrete ground cages or barren enclosures. The animals had limited access to fresh water and adequate veterinary treatment.
- They were also exposed to frequent visitors and other stressors, including overcrowding or loud noise levels.
- Twelve percent of the tigers observed had behavioral problems. These included overly aggressive behavior such as repetitive pacing or biting their tails. These behaviors most commonly occur when animals feel they cannot cope with stressful environments or situations and aren’t found in the animals living in the wild.
- Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Pattaya has the highest number of tigers in captivity. This venue is also the one where World Animal Protection observed the poorest conditions; at least one tiger there was so thin the hips and ribs were visible.
The Tiger Temple Case – Breeding for body parts
The 2016 Kanchanaburi province Tiger Temple case revelations highlight how captive tigers may be not only legally bred for tourism, but also bred for the illegal trade in body parts.
Government officials found 70 tiger cubs in glass jars and in freezers. They also found tiger skins and large numbers of amulets made from tiger bones, teeth and fur.
In June 2016, all of its 147 tigers were seized by Thai authorities.
The Tiger Temple and its suspected breeding practices for tiger body parts may not be an isolated case. Despite international outcry against tiger farming for the trade in body parts and for entertainment, this practice remains on-going cross Asia.
The tiger is one of the most iconic animal species on earth, but the largest of the ‘big cats’ is on the brink of extinction. A hundred years ago, as many as 100,000 wild tigers roamed across Asia. Today, there are only about 3,890 tigers left in the wild, occupying a mere 4% of their former range 14.
This catastrophic decline is driven by a range of threats, including poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, overhunting of prey species by local people, habitat loss, and conflict with people.
As a result, tigers are globally considered endangered with two subspecies (the Malayan and Sumatran) further classified as critically endangered.
- Governments worldwide need to investigate tiger entertainment venues and close down those that show evidence of illegal trade, cruelty or neglect as described in this report.
- Captive breeding of tigers should be limited to projects with internationally acknowledged conservation benefit.
- Thai authorities took action against illegal activities by confiscating 147 tigers from the Tiger Temple in June 2016. They must continue investigating other Thai tiger venues, and close down those that are exploiting and abusing tigers.
- Travel companies must move to end their sales and promotion of cruel wildlife entertainment attractions and educate their customers about how to be a responsible traveler.
One of the world’s largest online travel websites, TripAdvisor, continues to promote and sell tickets to the cruellest tiger venues uncovered in this report, including Sriracha Tiger Zoo.
What You Can Do
- Take action for tigers by joining the over 400 thousand people worldwide who have already signed the petition demanding TripAdvisor end its sale and promotion of cruel wildlife tourist attractions.
Join the movement to protect wildlife at wildlifenotentertainers.org
- Travelers should stay away from any irresponsible entertainments involving wild animals.
- If you can ride hug or have a selfie with a wild animal, please don’t and don’t support these activities either.
- Tigers and other wild animals at tourist entertainment venues with direct human-animal interactions are routinely abused. By not visiting a cruel tiger entertainment venue, you will help end the profitability of this industry and close down all cruel tiger entertainment venues for good.
- To have a genuine tiger experience, book a responsible organised excursion where you may get the chance to see these magnificent animals in the wild, where they belong.
World Animal Protection works to end needless suffering of animals, by influencing decision makers and inspiring people to change animals’ lives for the better. Hundreds of thousands of people have already joined the WAP movement for wild animals. More than 100 travel companies have also committed to end all sales and promotion of venues with elephant rides and shows.