Between 2012 and 2014 I had the opportunity to visit the famous tiger temple in Kanchanaburi province of Thailand, 3 times. Please see some up close pictures here and a Kannada article here. People are surprised by the total lack of aggressiveness in these cats and this makes them think there's some foul play involved. Each time I talk about tiger temple or mention it, there’re a set of people who believe these tigers are drugged and another section of online community prefers to have this place closed.
I don’t have a way to verify the accusations of drugging, illegal trade of tigers etc. In the absence of convincing evidence, I wish to take a neutral stand. In this post, I am writing the official explanation given by the staff at tiger temple on matters related to animal abuse and other accusations generally made on tiger temple, Thailand.
Q: Why are these tigers so soft behaved, without slightest sign of aggression? They must be drugged- am I right?
Explanation by Tiger temple staff (Answer): What tourists get to see up close are 15-20 best behaved cats at the sanctuary. While there are 130+ tigers of various ages in the temple, only those which are well behaved and accustomed to humans are brought forward to interact with tourists.
Further, just before the tiger temple opens for tourists (between 12 noon to 3PM), these tigers are well fed (mostly chicken). Since they are not hungry, they have no intention to harm anyone. They are sleepy and used to seeing humans around, hence they don’t mind a few people coming close and patting them.
Some of these tigers are brought up in the temple since their young age, hence they are well accustomed to having people around them.
Also most of the tigers tourists see are male tigers. Male tigers are more easier to handle than females, which tend to wander around (for shopping I guess?).
Note: Temple staff said tigers are nocturnal, prefer to hunt during night and sleep during day. Generic information on internet says tigers are not nocturnal, though they might hunt mainly in early morning/late evening or even in night.
Q: Do you ever drug the tigers at tiger temple?
A: No, except once an year during annual health checkup, when they are given sedatives so that medical staff can inspect them closely & treat where necessary.
Q: Why are the tigers chained?
A: They are chained purely as a precautionary measure and only during the visitor hours. Rest of the day they will be roaming around freely.
Q: Why do some of the tigers have injuries/scars?
A: Most of these injuries occur when they fight among themselves occasionally. They are big, powerful cats and sometimes even a joyful fight can result in minor injuries, which heal over time.
Q: What is the life expectancy of these tigers?
A: If left in the jungle, a tiger would survive for 10-12 years. But in the sanctuary, they last for 20-24 years easily. This is because in the wild, one has to hunt everyday- as they get old they loose their ability to hunt effectively and often loose their territory to other younger tigers. When finding food becomes difficult and because of non availability of any medical care, tigers may die earlier in the forest. In the tiger temple, however, situation is different. Since tigers are fed and given medical care, they can survive much longer.
Q: Have there been any attack on tourists by the tiger?
A: There’s been no fatal attacks. The last known attack was in August 2013, wherein a tiger cub bit the hands of a tourist during cub feeding program. The injury was negligible and was rectified with a bandage. Tiger cubs tend to bite everything that comes close to their mouth, hence there could be instances where a tourist feeding the cub may find his fingers bitten- but these cubs won’t have the strength of a big cat and the bite is hardly effective, most of the times treated with bandage.
Apart from these there have been instances where volunteers suffered minor injuries as they attempted to separate two fighting tigers.
Q: If I buy a tiger tooth, can I get it past the customs?
A: We can’t assure you of that- you will have to explain to the customs and get it cleared. Customs officials have all the right to confiscate it should they suspect some foul play.
People in our group had different opinions about the tiger temple, before they visited it. Many quoted online reports of drug abuse, few were scared to go near and others were just curious. Being there twice already, I had the privilege of explaining what to expect once at tiger temple. After the visit, many had mixed feeling- while it was good to touch and feel the tigers, complete absence of their natural behavior and instinct disturbed some. Instead of getting to touch and pat tigers, many seemed to be happy if they could see them from a distance, but in their natural state of activeness and aggression. Almost everyone I spoke to did agree on one thing- there is no viable alternative if we close the tiger temple.
If we have to close the tiger temple, then what is the next alternative?
Given the above information, if you still feel tiger temple is bad and needs to be closed down, I suggest you first prepare ground work for that by working with governments and other agencies. If Tiger temple is to be closed tomorrow, where do we send the tigers? If released into the forests, they would be dead within days because of poachers. Also tigers are territorial and need massive forests- unless we can build large dense poacher free forest and other supporting ecosystem, releasing the tigers to the woods is not a viable option.
I don’t think they should be sent to zoos. They are better off in their current habitat where they have more space, freedom and care than what confined chambers of a zoo can offer.
Also most of the cubs don’t have any training on hunting and are used to food coming their way. How do we teach them to hunt and survive on their own?
Of course Tiger temple charges an entry fee (which has been stable at 600 baht per person since my 2012 visit) and little more for cub feeding and up close photo sessions. Which I think is fine, since they do have considerable expenses in running the campus. Any tourist facility would do that to generate some income.
So if we’re advocating closing of tiger temple and freeing of these cats, first we should work on the required support ecosystem-massive forests which are free from poachers and human intervention. Specific accusations like drugs etc can be verified by competent government agencies. If the accusations can’t be proved [This Time.com report says NO Evidence could be found], then we should give the temple some credit for taking care of all these cats and facilitating a unique man-animal interaction.