If you like cats, getting really close to a big one like a tiger without ending up as their afternoon snack, is maybe one of the things in your bucket list. Sure some zoos offer you a glimpse of these apex predators, but in Thailand, you get to sit near one and pat it on the back, and still retain both hands.
Tiger tourism in ThailandThailand is one of the few places where you can get this sort of interaction with a tiger (much to the displeasure of animal activists). In other countries, you get to see tigers in reserves. Here, you get to be with several ones in the same cage.
I'm not a cat person, but I don't generally dislike cats either. I like big cats, our should I say I admire them, such powerful and majestic creatures. So you could say I like to like them from a distance, from a safe distance.
But being a curious person and a first time visitor in Thailand, I am piqued with the idea of "playing with the tigers", plus my wife was absolutely thrilled with the idea. There are a couple of places to do this in Thailand: Tiger Temple (Kanchanaburi, about 3 hours from Bangkok) , Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai (northern Thailand), and the recently opened Tiger Kingdom in Phuket.
Tiger tourism is not without controversies: from the mistreatment of tigers to tigers allegedly being drugged to make the more docile. One guy who volunteered for a time in Tiger Temple has this to say: (The Reality of Tiger Temple: My Final Thoughts on my Volunteering Experiment). It is interesting to read the blog comments as well. Although rare, there are instances where the tiger experience did not turn out to be pleasant. I found quite a number of blogs simply saying do not go there or outlining reason why not to go to Tiger Temple.
Like elephant camps and elephant riding, tiger tourism is not a black-and-white thing. Arguments from both sides fly back and forth and you can spend a lifetime discussing ethical issues, tiger conservation, releasing back to the wild, treatment and living conditions of tigers in the tiger camps, alleged sedation of tigers, etc.
Tiger Kingdom in Chiang MaiI decided to go to the Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai and see what the fuss is about. Its an "offspring" of the Ubon Zoo in Ubon Ratchathani which started as an animal rescue center in the early 80s. Tiger Kingdom, for all intents and purposes, is a zoo, but a tiger-dedicated zoo (although TK likes to use the term "Tiger Park"). It did not offer these close encounter packages when it opened in 2008.
The tiger petting business is good business and it aims to augment the income from Ubon Zoo. Upkeep or maintenance of the facilities and welfare of the animals obviously cost money, and Tiger Kingdom is not shy to say it so. There are several interaction packages to choose from: big, medium, small, and baby tigers, and combination like medium and small tigers.
view from the restaurant
They have an open air restaurant just beside the big (2-year old) and small tigers (about 7-9 months old) enclosures - perfect for getting a preview. We got the big + small tigers package.
"Playing with the tigers"Ok, I have to admit the "playing" part maybe an over promotion or applies only to the cubs. For the larger ones, its more of "carefully-approach-from-behind-and-don't-touch-the-head".
There are several things to note:
- Do not use flash.
- Stay with your group, or with the trainer. I had the mistake of using a long lens, so I did not realize I was moving away from the group while trying to take shot. One of the small tigers (even small ones can be intimidating) was already "tracking" me. Use a wide lens instead when taking photos of your companion interacting with the tiger.
- You can hold their tail, and go ahead rub their stomach. The smaller ones love it.
- Always approach from behind.
- Do not touch their front paws or their head, if you value your hand.
- Stroke these large pussy cats firmly, stroking gently will tickle the tiger and could just irritate it.
- You'll asked to leave all unnecessary stuff like backpacks outside the enclosure. You can bring your own camera or pay for a photographer to take photos for you.
Are the tigers drugged or sedated?Its easy to think that they are drugged, specially the larger ones. However its important to note that tigers and other large cats are primarily noctural. They sleep all day (18-20 hours!) and hunt at night.
sleep with one eye open
They are also well fed and are quite used to human presence as they have been trained since birth. They see humans not as a tasty meal but part of the family.
But do not let your guard down when in the cage. Tigers are tigers. One minute they are sleeping, the next they are up and about.
you want me to get close to that one?
Releasing back to the wildThis is not possible as the tigers here are hybrids. Each of the tigers here are catalogued and tracked by the government and its actually illegal to release them to the wild as it may pollute the gene pool. Plus the fact that these domesticated animals will not last long in the while. Hunting skills are not intrinsic and have to be taught by mother to cubs.
a 2-year old tiger
The oldest tigers in Tiger Kingdom are about 30 months old. What happened to the really mature ones? A staff mentioned they are in Ubon Zoo or to other zoos and are being used as "breeders".
ConservationConser... what? Not a hint there. No literature or videos to educate visitors about the status or plight of the tigers in the wild or what the establishment is doing in the conservation part (apart probably from breeding them
Its one well oiled tourism machine: you queue up for tickets, they wait for a batch to form, they take you to the enclosure for about 10-15 minutes, then let you go to wander around or maybe have some refreshments in the restaurant. Time for the next batch.
I have to admit that I think the cats are well cared for, and to some degree the experience is surreal. Being near these beasts evokes a sense of wonder and amazement (fear sometimes when they growl!). But next time, I'd rather shoot them within a nature reserve, doing what they do naturally.