Deep in Western Thailand, in the forests near the border with Myanmar (Burma), rests a forest monastery, but not just any monastery, Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, better known as – Tiger Temple. It is a temple that has grown from a simple place of worship by a handful of Buddhist monks who took in a single tiger in 1999, into an expansive “sanctuary” with 122 tigers to date. Since then it has become one of the most popular, and controversial, tourist destinations in all of Southeast Asia.
The Tiger Temple Controversy
Any Google search or internet perusing will yield countless articles and wildly varying accounts and opinions on this mysterious place – from Animal Planet’s video series in 2004 showcasing the Indochinese tigers and the wonders of the monks nurturing and interacting with these mythical and threatened creatures, to conservation groups’ call to arms with their accusations against the temple, which range from physical abuse and malnourishment to drugging and even partaking in the illegal, black market tiger trade. The close proximity in which tourists are able to interact with the tigers lends itself to both a unique, yet potentially dangerous experience, but at the same time a criticism of the animals’ rights.
Coming into close proximity with any wild animal, particularly tigers, poses an inherent danger. To address this danger tourists are required to sign a waiver relieving the Tiger Temple of responsibility before entering the grounds and are instructed not to wear bright clothes, sunglasses, hats or kneel in front of the tigers. Despite this, there still remain several instances of injuries and maulings every year (the most recent here). The temple’s transformation from a modest forest monastery serving as a simple place of refuge, to a full-blown wildlife sanctuary housing a myriad of animals along with a volunteer program run by Westerners, which includes a full-time veterinarian and a large organization of local staff to run the visitor operations has raised eyebrows amongst observers and begs the obvious question: Why is a Buddhist monastery operating a full scale wildlife project?
Balancing the Tiger Temple Controversy Opinions – The Supporters
Advocates laud the temple’s willingness to take in refuged tigers and provide an alternative to more mainstream and traditional attempts at conservation of Southeast Asia’s endangered tiger population. The abbot of the Tiger Temple envisions expanding the temple’s sanctuary project further, with the goal of buying a large amount of land (40,000 acres with an additional option of 120,000 more)to eventually re-train the offspring of future generations of bred-in-captivity tigers to be able to hunt and be in the “wild”. Tourists who visit the temple – in droves – have mixed experiences, however many who choose to come leave feeling that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close and experience these animals like no other setting can offer. For those, they feel that the animals seem to be well looked after and cared for, and their donations to the temple’s expansion project – while grand and untraditional by Western conservation methods – is a bold attempt to tackle the dwindling numbers of the endangered tiger population in Southeast Asia. Current and former volunteers of the temple, like visitors, also remain mixed on their feelings about the temple and its project. The temple’s ardent volunteer supporters point out that while the temple is not perfect, it is taking steps in the right direction, including educating local communities that tigers are worth more alive than dead (a common reason to kill and sell parts by local tribes), increasing the number of enclosures and enrichment activities for the tigers, and that no “matter what you do with animals, there is going to be controversy“.
On the Offensive – The Critics
Critics see a very different story. Conservation groups, wild life experts, and an assortment of international journalists – claim that the temple is nothing more than a tiger farm for profit, whose “conservation” claims are not only unfeasible, but are completely baseless. The most damning of reports comes from Care for the Wild,which sites an entire gamut of offensives against the temple, ranging from the illegal tiger trade to the cruel treatment and conditions in which the tigers are held. The type of tiger that is being bred there is in fact captive and of a hybrid genetic type that does nothing to support increasing the wild tiger population now, or in the future – and if anything – may lead tourists to leave thinking that tigers are not in fact reaching critically low numbers in the wild. While some visitors leave happily with their cute tiger photos, others leave with an entirely different impression. “Glorified petting zoo”, “tourist trap” and “circus” are not uncommon interpretations by more critical visitors. One of the most condemning voices of the temple and its project is not a tourist, but a former volunteer, Sybelle Foxcroft, who volunteered at the temple in 2007 and worked undercover with Care for the Wild foundation to investigate the conduct of staff and the treatment of the tigers.
The Sad State of the Wild Tiger
With threats ranging from habitat loss due to human deforestation to the profits which come from the poaching of the tigers – whose parts are used in traditional Chinese medicines because they are believed to have magical powers, and thus fetch lofty black market prices – the destructive rate in which we see Southeast Asia’s tiger population disappearing in the wild has risen sharply. The World Wildlife Fund reports we have lost 97% of wild tigers in the last century, which estimates there are as few as 3,200 tigers existing in the wild today. Indeed, at no other time in history have wild animals faced such destructive forces and grim future prospects than they currently do at the hands of human action, or for some, inaction. It is forecasted that the wild tiger population may be extinct altogether by the year 2022, the next year of the Tiger, if no action is taken.
Volunteering at Tiger Temple
I have never visited Tiger Temple before. I heard about it through a friend, who when mentioning the brief context of such a mysterious place – tigers, Buddhist monks, temples, tigers, Thailand, volunteer program, tigers – naturally, my curiosity was piqued. But what does volunteering with tigers have to do my quest to find my muse? That profession I am destined to finally find in order to discover my life’s purpose. Well – first off – I am no stranger when it comes to a love of animals.
Granted, I am not overly fond of the one’s that can gnaw my arm off with one bite, nor is my dear sweet mother apparently, but regardless, I am a fan. My brief stint volunteering with elephants in Thailand has blossomed into love and renewed sense of commitment to understand more about wildlife and do what I can to help animals of all shapes and varieties. However, it was an experience that also altered the way I view zoos and conservation. Second, I am one that likes to explore all sides of a story and form my own opinion. While there are plenty of reviews that praise the temple, from both visitors and past employees alike, and even more news media reports decrying and flaming the temple and its mission, I thought it would be prudent to experience it myself – not only to investigate the current state of the temple, but to be able to face and challenge my own beliefs about animal welfare, conservation and what role do humans play with animals in this shared planet of ours. And last, but not least, did I mention – ah…that you get work with tigers?
I do not know what my experience volunteering at Tiger Temple will yield. Will it be another eye opening adventure and ignite a newfound love for these majestic felines and a possible new career at the end of the rainbow? Or will I go down a deep rabbit hole like Alice and discover animal exploitation and the harsh reality of what happens when conservation meets tourism in this day and age? I don’t know what lies ahead, but maybe, just maybe – I will find that life is not just about finding a definitive truth or a definite lie, but more about coming to terms with the gray that lives in between. #tigertemple