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Tiger by the tail

Photo: Meena Menon  

When you enter the enclosure, which is called ‘the canyon’ for some reason, you see sleeping tigers in chains. Without exception, they are either curled up or spread-eagled. One had its legs in the air, and tourists mill around taking pictures or posing next to them. In the hot afternoon sun, only an umbrella near a green pool provided a shade of sorts. A monk in bright yellow robes sat next to two sleeping tigers, encouraging tourists to pull their tails and take pictures.

The famous Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi in Thailand, a three-hour drive from Bangkok, didn’t appear to have anything spiritual or even attractive about it at first glance. For 600 baht (Rs. 1200), you can sit around and take pictures with these big cats and for 1000 baht, you can take a photo with the tiger’s head in your lap. There are feeding times, and you can even bathe or walk the tigers. Last year, a teenaged British tourist, according to a report in the Daily Mail, was painfully bitten in her thigh by one of the tigers and she needed “tens of stitches”. She had an agonising recovery and it was a while before she could walk properly. The four-inch deep bite from a 400 pound tiger would probably leave a permanent scar. However, the news report said that the volunteers told her the tiger was being playful!

Tourists are warned not to dress in bright colours, but it didn’t really matter as the poor animals were all asleep, as if they were drugged. As we were leaving, one of the chained tigers woke up and yawned. It looked around and closed its eyes. The volunteers are a bunch of giggly teenagers who don’t know much about animals and keep telling you not to make sudden movements or go near the tiger unless they direct you. They also insist you to take photographs with them in a push to perpetrate the myth of the gentle tigers reared by monks. Sounds so exotic doesn’t it? Two monks who looked extremely unpleasant came and inspected the scene and barked some instructions in Thai. The monk who was sitting next to the two tigers continued pulling their ears and smiling and asking tourists to touch them.

It is tempting to be photographed next to a tiger, or even touch them, I admit. A six-month-old restless cub was also chained, was being fed with milk when we got there. A volunteer said the cub would have her milk and be ready to play with us a little later. When we got back from the canyon, Sky, as the cub is called was groggy and almost asleep, I touched her back and she twitched but didn’t wake up.

The volunteers clicked our photos and I asked the volunteer, Miya, if the cub was drugged. Miya was defensive and asked me if I had seen drugged tigers before and how would I know. And then she gave me the usual spiel that all volunteers will give you - that tigers are nocturnal animals and they tend to sleep in the afternoon and rest and that’s when it’s safe to go near them. Really! And as nocturnal animals, they sleep so deeply that you can sit next to them and pull their tails - which is the worst thing you can do even a cat, because it’s guaranteed to annoy them and wake them up.

I didn’t see any medical facility for tourists or warnings. There was a “sky walk” around the so called temple where you see caged tigers - limping or sitting around. They seemed to be awake, despite being nocturnal animals, not all of them nap in the afternoon! And they look up sharply when they see you and they seemed more alert. There are 140 tigers here, Miya said and not all of them were friendly. Some of the more pliable ones were displayed to tourists while the rest stay in cages.

It was not just tigers; there were exotic hornbills, kookaburras and others. Between 2005 and 2008 Care for the Wild International conducted an investigation and found that the “rather than continuing as a rescue centre, the Temple now operates as a breeding facility and may be involved in the illegal tiger trade.”

The report said that exchange or sale of tigers across international borders is prohibited under international and Thai law. However, undercover investigators noted that at least seven tigers disappeared from the Tiger Temple during the two year investigation, and at least five individuals appeared without explanation. Evidence was found to show that the Tiger Temple had regular dealings with a tiger farm in Laos, involving both the import and export of tigers. Typically, older animals from the Temple were exchanged for young cubs from Laos. Newly arriving tigers were given identical names to the animals which had been transferred from the Temple to Laos to obscure the fact that tigers are being moved in and out, and to create the illusion of continuity. Another concern the report said is that the release of tigers that are used to human proximity is dangerous for the tigers and the public.

Obviously the monks showed no interest in the report but several tour operators were sensitive to stop trips to the temple. Outraged tourists also blogged about the place which seems to be more than just about taking photographs with tigers. There is story that the temple which was set up in 1994 or thereabouts, was started by monks who saved a tigress and her cub and there is a giant statue on the way to the place. It’s a place that should be investigated thoroughly and shut down.

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2021 9:47:00 PM |

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