Thailand’s Tiger Temple: Why we’re not going

The irony of it all is that we planned this upcoming trip to Bangkok because we really wanted to go to the Tiger Temple, located in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province. I mean, who can say no to a really cool photo with a big cat?! And the chance to, you know, stroke it? And for only THB300?! Bargain!

However after a bit of research and speaking to some friends who had visited, we decided to boycott the attraction based on the following:

The Tiger Temple bills itself as a nature sanctuary, with the purported aim of breeding tigers to help restore wild populations.  Err, no, not really.

It may have started as a wildlife sanctuary, it may in fact, still be one. But what it most definitely isn’t, is a conservation effort. The Tiger Temple breeds tigers without a license, mixing subspecies without keeping genetic records. The establishment does not have a sanctioned breeding program, nor does it have a rehabilitation plan for releasing tigers into the wild.

Why are genetic records so important? Not all tigers are created equal –  there are 6 distinct tiger subspecies, each with different genetic makeups. Part of the work conservation centres around the world do is to breed viable populations of tigers per subspecies, with the hope of releasing them into the wild to strengthen local populations. These legal breeding centres do often exchange tigers to breed a varied and thereby strengthened, gene pool. Without any sort of records, however, the tigers at the Tiger Temple are useless to legitimate breeders and do nothing to contribute to the global effort of tiger conservation.

When the Temple first started, in 2001, there were 7 tigers, which the Thailand National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department declared were illegally kept by the monks. However, the Department allowed the monks to continue to look after them. In 2008, there were 34 tigers. Today, there are about a hundred tigers of indeterminate subspecies kept at the Temple. The number of attempted releases into the wild over the last ten years? Zero.

Temple staff have also enthusiastically mentioned that the cubs are taken away from their mother at 3 months of age to be “tamed” and are therefore safe for photo-taking purposes; these cubs will stand no chance of surviving in the wild without the hunting skills only their mother could have taught them. Finally, the issue of tiger conservation is highly complex and cannot be solved by just breeding the tigers and charging high fees to “aid” in their recovery – scientists all agree that unless large swatches of land are protected, tigers will not be returning to the wild, no matter how many successful captive tigers are bred. The Tiger Temple ignores all of this, and continues to solicit funds from tourists, many who pay in the mistaken belief that they are helping the tiger cause.

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2. The Tiger Temple doesn’t provide a suitable environment for tigers

Any self respecting conservation gig would have done some research on their charges. As documented in this study published by Zoos South Australia, tigers in captivity are easily bored (in fact, any animal in captivity needs stimulus) so most enlightened zoos provide an enriched environment for captive tigers that have all, or some of the following:

  • An elevated sleeping/resting platform
  • Enrichment, in the form of toys that encourage natural, wild behaviours such as hunting or stalking
  • Food that is given irregularly, is hidden, novel, or placed high on a pole
  • Foliage and other natural barriers

Tigers are solitary animals in the wild, and only come together in the mating season, which runs from November to April. Housing many tigers in one enclosure, without appropriate visual barriers, stresses them out as in their natural habitat, they establish their own exclusive home ranges.

Other studies suggest that captive tigers should be “housed in large enclosures containing natural substrate and vegetation, water pools, ample shade, resting locations and enrichment items”. None of these seem to be in evidence in any of the photos of the Tiger Temple, enthusiastically posted online by previous visitors.

A friend who visited did say in its defense, that it was clean and each tiger had its own cage. It was also mentioned that the tigers are left to breed at will, and unlike in the wild where tigers breed once a year, captive tigers will breed up to three times a year. The young cubs are also introduced en masse to adults – not natural tiger behaviour at all as although not anti-social, in the wild most tigers are usually solitary.

Tiger Temple

The Tiger Temple isn’t a temple.

It’s a money generating, purely commercialised venture that exists solely to provide visitors with the gratuitous thrill of having their photo taken next to a manhandled, chained tiger. It may have started as a temple-slash-injured-animal-sanctuary, but has very quickly morphed into what is, essentially, a petting zoo with none of the animal welfare standards a modern zoo would actually have. Call a spade, a spade.

This place isn’t a temple. It’s an export farm with a sideline into milking tourists who want to pose for a picture next to a tiger. Recently, 16 tiger cubs were found in the back of a vehicle which was stopped at a checkpoint between Bangkok and Vientiane, all of which were believed to have come from breeding facilities in Kanchanaburi and Greater Bangkok. The Tiger Temple may have been one of these breeding facilities, and those smuggled tiger cubs were probably enroute to China.

The Tiger Temple has been linked to the illegal tiger trade

Where do all the cubs go? Why breed so many, without proper records? Why have there been rumours about trucks rumbling up in the dead of night and spiriting away tigers? Couple this with the tiger trade happening just across the borders in Laos and Burma, the lucrative Chinese market for tiger parts for “medicinal” purposes and you don’t need a rocket science degree to put all this together.

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Added to this is the fees the Tiger Temple charges visitors, claiming high costs to feed and accommodate the tigers. The numbers issued by the Tiger Temple, however, simply do not add up.

The temple claims to spend 400,000 baht a day on feeding 99 tigers, which would mean the tigers would eat 4,000 baht a day of chicken carcasses, that would mean they eat each 80 kilos of chicken a day! Tigers are known to eat only up to maximum 5% of their body weight per day, about 5-7 kilos on average. This would mean that even if they had beef everyday it would cost no more than 600 baht per day per tiger or 60,000 baht. If they eat chicken it would not be more then 35,000, instead of the 400,000 per day mentioned. It would put the cost of caring for the tigers at about 12 million baht a year.

Furthermore the issue of 150 paying visitors a day; Actually on average 300-400 people visit the temple each day at 600 baht per person which would bring in about 75 million baht a year, not including the “close-by” experiences of making photos with the tigers and sales of souvenirs, which is a considerable amount as well. The total income might be higher then the already stunning 84 million mentioned in the article. The amount of Thais visiting the temple can be ignored, they do not fall for the “miracle of conservation” at the temple and see it more as exploitation. Looking at the total income against the expenses caring for the tigers you can see the profit in the millions a month.

Source: “Temple Tiger numbers face cut” (September, 2012)

Going to the Tiger Temple, even just to “make up your own mind” about it, generates demand, which is then translated into more wild tiger trade/poaching

Given the number of reviews, coverage and independent reports available about the Tiger Temple, you shouldn’t need to see it for yourself to make an intelligent decision. Is “making up your own mind”  worth paying an entrance fee that doesn’t benefit the animals, and perpetuates the demand for, and pressure on wild tiger populations, which are currently close to extinction? Do you really need to see a volunteer discipline a tiger for a photo op before you can make up your mind that the Tiger Temple is not even remotely close to being a conservation site, and does none of the good for the animals that it purports to do?

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The above reasons do not even take into consideration the alleged drugging and mistreatment of the animals that some visitors have raised. For my part I don’t know if they drug the tigers, but many reviews note that the tigers seem well-fed.  I’m sure they are. The people who run the Tiger Temple would be foolish to mistreat them, given that the animals are the geese that lay golden eggs. I’m sure the tigers are fed enough – you wouldn’t want a hungry cat to gnaw on a money-paying, camera-toting tourist, would you?

So, anyway.

We’re not going, despite falling a little for the hype and being human and really really wanting a picture of us and a tiger. Because what we would really really prefer, is to have sustainable populations of wild tigers roaming tracts of protected natural reserve, rather than just a cool picture of us and a tiger chained to a stake in the ground, which will only be useful to show our grandchildren what a tiger looks like twenty years in the future, when all tigers in the wild are extinct.

In coming to our decision, we consulted a few guide books, spoke to friends who went (and had a great time and yes, got amazing photos), perused forums such as Tripadvisor, Thorn Tree, and Travelocity, read articles posted on Travelfish, and took CWI’s report with a grain of salt. Lonely Planet’s official stance as of 2012 advises travellers not to go.

The Tiger Temple is a tourist attraction, a zoo, not a charity, refuge, sanctuary or a conservation attempt for tigers, contrary to the information their website provides. The high tourist demand for the Tiger Temple will continue to encourage poachers to shoot tigers for their body parts and sell their cubs to places like these. There are about 200 wild tigers left in Thailand. WWF thinks we’ve lost about 97% of our wild tigers around the world in the last century. About 3,200 of them in total exist in the wild today. They won’t last much longer if this goes on.

The commercial success of the original Tiger Temple has resulted in even more exploitative sites like these across Thailand. These are not places with the tigers’ best interests at heart, despite their advertised motives. Your money won’t be spent towards tiger conservation, or anything remotely beneficial to tigers, captive or wild.

Go if you really want to – you’ll probably have a really good time, plus it’s unquestionably cool to hang out with a big cat, and you’ll get some truly jaw-dropping, amazing photos. Just don’t pretend that it was for the good of the animals there.

tiger temple

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16 Comments

  1. kevin meyers says:

    These kind of places make my skin crawl… ugh. And unfortunately they are found around the world. I’m so glad to hear you gave it a miss.

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      They’re all over the world – you’re right, Kevin. I had a similar experience when I went to the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia… funnily enough though I didn’t feel the same way about the bullfights in Spain – that isn’t exploitative as much as just cruel… but there is a cultural imperative there as well. These issues are hard to parse through.

      1. kevin meyers says:

        What’s really depressing to me is how most people don’t and won’t care. If animal issues come up in conversation and I try to tell people my concerns, the response of most is basically “I don’t see the problem.” Grrrr…
        I sent you an email. Did you get it?

  2. OK , Peggy – I agree 100% – but I still want to go to Thailand! Are you going to take me? I’ve wanted to ride on an elephant ever since I was little!
    Dingo.

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      You can definitely come along to Thailand with me, Dingo! And we’ll find a recommended elephant camp to go for an elephant ride!

      1. Fab! Can’t wait. Love Dingo.

      2. Yeah, thanks Peggy. Can’t wait! Love Dingo

  3. littlegray says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Some years ago I went on a tour in Thailand which included a visit to the Tiger Temple. I had never heard of it before and it was described to me as a conservation project. I have my photos with the big cats, and yes, the photos are cool – but the experience was not what I was expecting and I am not proud to display those photos.

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Thanks for reinforcing my decision not to go! I think my main beef is that it’s not a conservation project, and yet it is marketed as one… not only is it not doing the animals any good, it claims to actually be helping them – and that is what gets me the most.

  4. Ali says:

    Great post! Sounds like you have done your research! Which is something that a lot of people don’t do when they travel. I’ve never been into animals so for me, the prospect of getting a photo with a tiger doesn’t excite me, but there are many people it does…they probably don’t take a second thought about what their money is actually going towards.

  5. Admiring the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information you provide.
    It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same outdated rehashed information.
    Wonderful read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds
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    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Thanks for the lovely compliments!

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