Thailand’s Tiger Temple is in the news again. A tourist filmed a keeper at the temple punching a tiger in the face. As is the way with these things, the video has been viewed around 5 million times on Facebook in a matter of days.
A report has also just been released by Australian NGO Cee4Life, which claims the temple is involved in the trafficking of tigers and, as National Geographic reports this month: Cee4Life alleges that ‘tigers have been taken illegally to and from the temple since at least 2004.”
The temple – which opened in 1994 – has long been a source of controversy. Allegations of tiger smuggling and animal cruelty at the temple were made as far back as 2008. Yet this has not stopped it growing ever more successful. In 2007 it had 18 tigers. By 2010 there were more than 70. Today there are 147.
So will this latest round of bad publicity and accusations of animal cruelty make any difference? There were similar critical stories last year, such as when Beyonce and Jay-z visited. And there were articles just about every year previously. And while companies such as STA and Responsible Travel have been vocal as to why they now refuse to sell tours to the temple, it is still featured uncritically on the websites of companies such as Thomas Cook and Hayes and Jarvis.
Likewise, take a look the Tiger Temple’s 1,880 reviews on Tripadvisor. 1,150 of these rated the attraction excellent or very good, compared to just 532 who rated it poor or terrible. And if you click the link on its Tripadvisor listing through to the Tiger Temple’s own website, you’ll see its Tripadvisor Travellers Choice badge for 2015 prominently displayed. (Although, curiously, there’s no mention of this award ever being granted on Tripadvisor or elsewhere online).
Research was published last year that highlighted this disconnect between whether a tourism attraction is actually good for the animals concerned and whether tourists enjoy it. The study, “The Customer Isn’t Always Right—Conservation and Animal Welfare Implications of the Increasing Demand for Wildlife Tourism“, found that wildlife tourism attractions have “substantial negative effects that are unrecognised by the majority of tourists”. It drew particular attention to tiger tourism as having the widest discrepancy between the lack of animal welfare and their ongoing popularity. Despite tiger attractions receiving the lowest possible animal welfare rating, the researchers found, only 18% of reviewers mentioned concerns about the welfare of the animals, with the remaining 82% rating the tiger attractions as “excellent” or “very good.”
The sad irony is that tourism really can help tigers – in the wild. India’s tiger population grew by 30 per cent between 2010-2014, with most of that increase occurring in the most successful and well visited parks. (Although even this comes with a caveat, as there were reports last year of tribal people being evicted from reserves to make way for tourism development.) As Julian Matthews of the certification scheme Tour Operators for Tigers, which audits accommodation and tour operators in India and Nepal according to how good they are for conservation and community development, has said: “responsible well managed nature and safari tourism into the Indian subcontinent finest wildernesses and Tiger reserves is the very best way to save their forests, their iconic tigers and their extraordinary biodiversity.”
Unfortunately, it is a lot more expensive to go on safari than visit a park. And you might spend days and hardly get a glimpse of a tiger, as opposed to a guaranteed snap of yourself cuddling a cub. Our need for instant gratification ensures that until the idea of taking a tiger selfie is seen as a badge of shame rather than a bucket list rite of passage, the likes of the Tiger Temple will continue to prosper.