Tiger Zoo shuttered, but problem only gets worse
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Tiger Zoo shuttered, but problem only gets worse

Staff at the Tiger Temple walk tigers back to their enclosure after a portrait session with tourists, in Kanchanaburi, on March 16, 2016. (Amanda Mustard/The New York Times)
Staff at the Tiger Temple walk tigers back to their enclosure after a portrait session with tourists, in Kanchanaburi, on March 16, 2016. (Amanda Mustard/The New York Times)

SI RACHA, Chon Buri: When Thai park rangers raided a popular zoo famous for letting visitors feed and handle tigers, their grisly haul three years ago shocked the world: 1,600 tiger parts, including pelts, amulets fashioned from skins, scores of teeth, 40 dead cubs found in a freezer and 20 more preserved in jars.

Behind the veneer of the Tiger Temple, a zoo run by Buddhist monks, was a business profiting from the illegal trade in tiger parts. Three monks were arrested while trying to escape, and in a highly publicised spectacle 147 tigers were seized and taken to a government-run facility.

The raids were a high-water mark for Thailand in its effort to crack down on animal abuse and the illegal trade in tigers and tiger parts. But since then, the plight of captive tigers has only worsened.

Officials admitted last week that 86 of the seized temple tigers had died in their care, many from stress-related causes. No one from the Tiger Temple ever went to jail for possessing tiger parts or for operating the lucrative unlicensed zoo.

In recent years the number of tigers in captivity — including those remaining in the government’s custody — has tripled to about 2,000, and the number of facilities with captive tigers has grown to 67, with two more under construction, said Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.

Since the raids, the Department of National Parks has made no effort to stop the spread of hands-on experiences that the temple helped pioneer. Now, at least 20 zoos around the country offer visitors the chance to feed a cub, have a photo taken with a tiger or enter an enclosure.

Animal welfare activists have long urged the government to shutter those tiger zoos that are little more than farms producing animals for the black market.

"The whole system of animal welfare needs to be upgraded in Thailand," said Tanya Erzinclioglu, who cared for tigers at the Tiger Temple before becoming an animal welfare activist. "They need proper zoo standards. Everyone would have to upgrade, including the Department of National Parks."

One of the country’s oldest and largest zoos, the Sriracha Tiger Zoo, has more than 300 tigers.

There, piglets and tiger cubs are put together in cages. The smallest cubs and piglets nurse together from a sow or sometimes from a tiger — an echo of the Tiger Temple’s marketing mantra of peaceful coexistence among species.

At an exhibit called "Shoot 'n Feed," tourists fire pellet guns at targets above a tiger pen. Direct hits release food to waiting tigers, which fight over the scraps.

Elsewhere, visitors line up to have their photos taken as they bottle-feed cubs. Or they can attend a show where tigers perform tricks, such as jumping through a flaming hoop.

After the raid on the Tiger Temple, Ms Erzinclioglu founded a nonprofit group, For Tigers, to help raise funds for their welfare and began conducting annual surveys of zoos.

In a July report assessing three dozen zoos open to the public, she concluded that tigers in 74% of the facilities were kept in inadequate conditions.

Nearly 60% of the zoos had no fresh water for the tigers, she found, and fewer than 20% provided spacious enclosures where the animals could move around without restraint or interference from humans.

In some zoos, tigers have been trained by handlers to fear being hit with a stick. Many have had their claws removed.

Ms Erzinclioglu and her team counted 28 tigers at different zoos that were kept on short chains for hours a day so that tourists could pose with them for photos.

"There are more facilities with tigers than before the Tiger Temple was closed," she said. "There are good places but overall they are very poor."

The zoos cater mainly to tourists from Asian countries.

Young tigers are the most popular with visitors. Older tigers that have outgrown their usefulness are often shunted out of sight to smaller cages with concrete floors. They are the most vulnerable to the illegal trade.

It is not difficult to breed tigers in captivity and many zoos produce far more tigers than they need to entertain tourists.

It is, however, illegal to operate a tiger farm in Thailand. Mr Wiek, who has been tracking the trade for years, says that about 20 facilities should be regarded as farms, not zoos, because more than 80% of their animals are tigers and the facilities are actively engaged in breeding them.

Moreover, he said, captive breeding encourages the hunting of wild tigers.

It may seem counterintuitive, but feeding and raising a tiger to adulthood costs more in Thailand than going to the jungle and shooting one. Mr Wiek said the existence of tiger farms creates a market for tiger parts, which gives poachers an incentive to kill them.

Furthermore, he said, buyers will pay more for a wild tiger than for one that is farmed.

"The farming of tigers is having a direct effect on the wild population," said Mr Wiek, who operates a wildlife rescue center and has advised parliament. "It is much cheaper to go out and shoot one in the wild."

Tiger skins, bones, penises and other parts are highly desired in China and Vietnam, particularly for use in so-called traditional medicine.

The trade in tiger parts operates so brazenly that at least one company openly offers foreign tourists tiger-bone powder as a supposed health supplement, Mr Wiek said.

"I cannot remember one case where a zoo that was caught for illegal trafficking or illegal possession actually lost its zoo licence," he said.

The director of Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office, Kanjana Nitaya, whose office oversees zoos, said all of the country’s zoos meet the requirements of their licences.

Inspectors frequently visit the zoos and examine the health of the tigers, which they find to be satisfactory, she said.

Unlike the Tiger Temple, which was shut down because it was unlicensed, other zoos offering interaction with tourists have not faced sanctions because they have licences, she said.

The department’s role is not to regulate what the zoos do with the animals, she said, but to ensure that they zoos take proper care of them.

"It is not our task to tell them their activities," she said.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are 3,900 wild tigers left on earth, inhabiting isolated fragments of their historic range.

Nearly 3,000 are in India, which has made a concerted effort to protect their habitat and increase their numbers.

Thailand is one of the few remaining countries in Southeast Asia with a viable wild tiger population, which numbers about 250. A small population of tigers was recently discovered in an area of northern Thailand where they had not been present for years.

"There is good news in Thailand," said Tim Redford, a training coordinator at the Freeland Foundation, an environmental and human rights group. "There are still tigers breeding here. It is not a lost cause yet."

If captive breeding were to become the last resort for saving the tiger, most of Thailand’s captive tigers would not be good candidates.

Many are inbred and most are a mix of tiger subspecies, including Amur tigers, which are native to Siberia and northern China, and Bengal tigers, which are native to India.

Among those in captivity, there are relatively few Indochinese tigers, the subspecies native to Thailand.

Last week, officials blamed the deaths of the 86 temple tigers on the fact that many were inbred and that some were ill when they were seized in mid-2016.

But it should have been standard procedure to quarantine sick tigers on their arrival. Instead, they were placed in relatively small cages close to each other, where contagious diseases could easily spread.

On Friday, officials invited journalists to the Khao Prathap Chang Wildlife Breeding Center in Ratchaburi, one of the two facilities where the temple tigers were kept.

The group saw two tigers that might have been from the temple amid rows of empty cages.

"I want to keep them in their best life, happy and living a long time," said the center’s director, Banpot Maleehuan. "I never neglect them."

Perhaps the best strategy for closing down disreputable zoos and tiger farms, suggested Mr Wiek and Mr Redford, would be to sterilise the inbred and mixed-breed tigers.

A lack of new cubs would curtail feeding and photo opportunities. And over 15 years or so, many problems associated with the tiger zoos and farms would disappear.

"It is the solution," Mr Wiek said. "When you cannot enforce the laws you have in place or people are so corrupt, this is probably the only way to stop the breeding of these tigers."

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