Tiger industry continues to profit
In the wild, tigers are apex predators. Solitary animals that can travel almost 300km to find food and mates, they very rarely come in contact with other tigers or people.
Sadly, the number of wild tigers is dwarfed by the numbers that now live in captivity. Currently estimated to be more than 8,000 individuals in East and Southeast Asia, the captive tiger population is more than twice the number of tigers that are left in the wild, estimated at 3,900. China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have the largest number of captive tigers in Asia while no viable wild tiger populations are thought to be left in Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam.
And the captive tiger industry shows no sign of slowing. A new tiger park has just opened in Phuket, where the Tiger Kingdom has already been in operation since 2013. The island received almost 10 million visitors in 2019 and it seems businessmen believe this means there is enough tourist interest in seeing captive tigers to justify opening another park in the same area.
In the past, I've visited the Sriracha Zoo and Pattaya Tiger Park in Thailand, as well as the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park in China. The conditions and style of these facilities varies, but visitors will see multiple tigers pacing and sometimes sleeping on top of each other. The inbreeding that likely takes place in such facilities means there can be severe health defects among the captive populations. Visitor attractions may include the chance to interact and have photos taken with tigers, to watch them perform in circus acts, and to feed them live chickens or meat (by hand or by shooting targets that drop meat down to the waiting tigers).
Having visited these facilities, I wonder what the tourists I saw visiting from around the world think of such places and whether they consider the broader implications and what goes on behind the scenes. Tiger cubs are only safe to handle for the first few months of their life, so as they grow older, new ones will be bred to replace them. Older tigers are drugged to keep them "safe" for tourists to have their photos taken -- prodded with sticks by their handlers to keep them awake enough in front of the camera. How can these facilities continue to support an ever growing population of tigers in their limited facilities?
The world learned the reality of these types of tiger facilities following the raid and closure in 2016 of the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. In addition to the 147 live tigers that were seized, law enforcement officials found 40 frozen dead tiger cubs, 20 cubs in formaldehyde, two adult tiger pelts, 1,500 tiger skin amulets, and other amulets made of tiger teeth. These products were slated for the black market, with the monastery simultaneously operating as a popular tourist attraction and a clandestine breeding facility to supply illegal tiger products. And those involved in these illegal activities have still not been prosecuted. (continues below)
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) believes that these tiger farms -- facilities breeding captive tigers with the intent to trade in their parts and products -- have no conservation value, since these tigers would never survive in the wild. Instead, they undermine enforcement efforts to close the illegal tiger trade and can in some cases contribute to the demand for illegal tiger products. Stimulating demand in this way could lead to the increased poaching of tigers from the wild.
Yet most tourists would likely never consider that these parks, especially those operating so openly in tourist destinations, could be fronts for illegal trade and that those same, cute tiger cubs that they take pictures with could end up in a jar of alcohol, or butchered and boiled to make tiger bone glue.
Thailand has demonstrated good work in protecting the areas where their own wild tigers live, so it is unfortunate to see permissions given to another facility that might undermine these conservation efforts, as well as the efforts of all tiger range countries to secure their wild tiger populations. We call on regional governments in Asia to demonstrate leadership by phasing out tiger farms altogether.
WWF recommends a phase out plan that should begin with stopping the commercial trade of all tiger products from tiger farms, undertaking an audit of how many tigers there are in which facilities, and immediately halting further breeding at those facilities. This could be achieved by separating the males and females, or through sterilisation. Governments should pull together experts on animal welfare, zoos, tiger trade and veterinary care to plan full phase-outs of these facilities. There are plenty of individuals who would be willing to assist in the process.
And we encourage tourists to think about their choices and avoid supporting the kind of facility that benefits from the suffering of, and potential illegal sale of, captive tigers.
Heather Sohl is WWF's Tiger Trade Leader.