On the shabby outskirts of a seaside resort in Thailand, a Chinese couple in beachwear lean across the back of an adult tiger. The big cat yawns with weary insouciance as two handlers cajole it around its pen and prod it with bamboo sticks. In a smaller enclosure, another couple giggle as they dangle their infant son over a juvenile tiger. Nearby, a tourist in his 20s poses as if in mid roar over two dozing young tigers before – prompted by the handlers – grabbing their tails and putting them up to his mouth, as guffawing friends watch on.
This is the disturbing new face of wildlife tourism in Thailand, where tigers are hand-reared to provide social-media images for foreign visitors. Every day, busloads of tourists are whisked away from their sunloungers to spend an hour or so posing for pictures with unchained, surprisingly docile tigers. By the time they get back to their seaside hotels and settle down for sunset cocktails, many will have already uploaded pictures of themselves with the animals to Facebook and Instagram, to impress – or appal – their friends back home.
Tiger Kingdom, in Phuket, is one of more than a dozen “tiger selfie” attractions that have sprung up across the Southeast Asian country in recent years, driven by booming numbers of package-tour arrivals from mainland China and India, and the desire for ever more audacious social-media shots.
Along with elephant-riding venues, they provide bite-sized encounters with captive wildlife – albeit at a price. Tiger Kingdom charges 900 baht (HK$220) per person to pose with a small tiger, plus 500 baht should you need an in-house photographer to take pictures, and offers encounters with newborn tigers for 2,500 baht and with a “giant tiger” for 2,000 baht.
The attractions appear hugely popular with tourists from across the globe, although TripAdvisor posts suggest it is an experience some regret immediately afterwards.
“[It] is a tiger jail […] Tigers looked like [they] were drugged,” one Italian tourist wrote after visiting Tiger Kingdom last month. “Never, ever in my life again.”
An April visitor from Britain called the attraction cruel, also remarking: “Tigers kept mostly in concrete-floor cages. All seemed dopey almost like they [were] drugged up […] Not impressed when asked [by handlers] to pull tiger’s tail […] This is degrading to a beautiful powerful animal […] Disgusted – had to walk out in anger.”
For many others, however, getting up close to a tiger is clearly a highlight of their holiday and the largely positive reviews praising the “awesome experience” and “lifelong memories” of parks such as Tiger Kingdom – which categorically denies drugging its tigers – has triggered a campaign by Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation to get TripAdvisor to stop listing the venues.
More than 40,000 people have signed a petition by the charity calling on the world’s largest travel website to stop hosting animal attractions featuring elephant rides and tiger selfies, which, they say, promotes “the exploitation of many thousands of wild captive animals in Asia and elsewhere”.
For its part, TripAdvisor says that delisting such places would be counterproductive, arguing that tourists who are forewarned are forearmed.
Another charity, World Animal Protection, estimates that there are now more than 800 tigers “posing” for selfies in venues across Thailand, and says they endure “a lifetime of suffering starting with early removal from their mothers followed by unrelenting handling and stressful interactions with visitors”.
As they grow, the animals are confined to small, barren cages, chained and subjected to harsh training, the charity says in a report. It also estimates that captive tiger numbers grew by more than 200 between 2010 and 2016 because of the booming popularity of big-cat selfies.
“When they visit tiger venues, people seem to think it’s a great experience for them to take a selfie with a tiger and use the photo on their social media,” says Somsak Soonthornnawaphat, head of campaigns for World Animal Protection Thailand. “They don’t understand the cruelty behind the scenes.
“They do it for a fun photo, but the baby tigers have been taken away from their mothers from a very early age and live in a cage often with a chain. We did a poll and 93 per cent of tourists say they want to experience wildlife tourism because they love animals. They don’t know how they are trained and treated.”
Somsak says most visitors from China and India come with group tours.
“They buy a package and it includes different activities, and one of the top activities is visiting a wildlife venue like a tiger park,” he says. “Popular parks like Tiger Kingdom have very good marketing in the country where the tourists come from. They offer good commission to the tour operators and guides, and even taxi drivers as an incentive to bring people to the venues.”
World Animal Protection has launched educational campaigns in China and India, to discourage tourists and tour operators from patronising parks in which captive tigers and elephants are used for entertainment, but Somsak says the scale of the industry surrounding such operations presents a massive challenge.
“In China, there is a very big population and a huge number of tour operators, but only four tour operators have agreed to cooperate with us so far,” he says. “There is still a long way to go for them to understand and offer only animal-friendly venues to their customers.”
Even seasoned observers such as Somsak struggle to understand why the tigers are so passive when they are hugged and tugged by tourists in the selfie parks.
“It’s not natural behaviour,” he says. “Tigers are very strong animals and very active, and don’t usually behave the way you see them behaving in tiger venues.
“We don’t know if they use drugs or not, and we don’t have any evidence that they do. But when they are in the wild, tigers hunt in the nighttime and sleep in the daytime. In captivity, they mostly feed them chickens, and when they are full they don’t react.”
Thailand’s relatively lax animal welfare laws mean there is no mechanism for checking on the health of the animals kept in entertainment venues.
“It is the Thai government’s responsibility to oversee the operation of public zoos, including all the tiger parks, but they don’t visit regularly or check on the tigers’ health,” says Somsak. “They only look at licence issues.
“The zoos need to register and renew their registration every five years. They do checks but mostly they just check the enclosures and the condition of the venue. Then they make a decision on whether to continue the licence.”
TripAdvisor introduced an animal-welfare policy in 2016 and stopped selling tickets and issuing “certificates of excellence” to attractions such as Tiger Kingdom, which still proudly displays its 2015 certificate next to the animals’ cages. The travel company has also introduced a paw logo to indicate listings featuring wild animals, with links to expert advice on animal welfare from organisations including World Animal Protection.
Somsak believes TripAdvisor – which launched a Chinese site, DaoDao.com, in 2009 and expects China to soon become its biggest market – should go further.
“They should issue stronger advice to tourists about the venues,” he says.
Animals Asia’s animal welfare director Dave Neale has held talks with senior TripAdvisor officials to make the same case, and to present a petition calling for listings of attractions such as Tiger Kingdom to be removed altogether. He says the online giant is “floundering” on the issue.
“TripAdvisor says this should all be self-regulated by the public,” Neale explains. “They say it is better to have them on TripAdvisor with a bad review so people know, but in reality that isn’t working. They are getting very high ratings. They get occasional bad reviews but, generally, the ratings are good because people are ill-informed.
“The public aren’t always aware of animal-welfare issues, and some of these places go out of their way to try to make it sound like the animals have all been rescued and are being looked after. We investigated a swimming-with-dolphins place in Bali. On the way out, tourists are told the dolphins are free to go out to sea at night and come in during the day to interact with people. Obviously, that couldn’t possibly happen, but people believe it and think, ‘Wow, it’s lovely that the dolphins just love to be here.’ It’s easy to pull the wool over the eyes of the public when in reality animals are suffering and being made to do things they don’t want to do.”
Neale describes the craze for tiger selfies as bizarre.
“People do seem to leave their common sense behind when they get on a plane sometimes,” he says. “Imagine if someone rocked up in Oxford Street, in London, with a tiger and tried to get people to have their pictures taken with it. No one would go near it. But get on a plane and people lose their heads and think if everyone’s doing it, it must be OK. And then, when everyone sees their pictures on social media, they seem to think it must be all right.”
The placid behaviour of the tigers in the parks is “quite amazing”, Neale concedes. “Drugging used to happen a lot and then it got exposed. Whether places are still drugging them and hiding it, I don’t know. A lot of the animals seem fully aware of what’s happening and seem uninterested in the public. I guess it is just due to the fact they hand-rear them. But that doesn’t make it right from the animal’s point of view.
“The fact you have to have someone standing around with a stick says a lot. It isn’t giving the animal free choice. It has to be there or be subjected to physical abuse.
“Rather than just taking pleasure out of having your photograph taken with the tiger, you should find somewhere they are in a natural setting and watch them being tigers.
“People should consider where they are kept when the places are closed. They are generally kept in small cages and the likelihood is they spend 16 hours a day in a very poor environment with limited ability to carry out any natural behaviour and interact with other animals.”
Speaking to Post Magazine from his London office, TripAdvisor senior media relations manager James Kay explains his company’s policy regarding venues featuring animals.
“We have had numerous conversations with Animals Asia and there is a philosophical point of difference around how we list attractions,” he says. “There is a clear distinction we make between selling tickets for something and listing it on TripAdvisor.
“We firmly believe that when you have a platform that allows travellers to share their experiences and viewpoints, that is a good thing for the industry and it ultimately drives and improves standards. If you […] go to a country, and you find a brochure or pamphlet for a local zoo and go to look at TripAdvisor to see what people say about it, and if we didn’t list it, you would find nothing and you’d have no counter viewpoint as to whether that place has good or bad standards.
“Delisting these places is counterproductive when you are talking about trying to improve animal welfare, and certainly in terms of trying to get tourists to think about animal welfare before they go to these places. We think if you, as a customer, have been to a place, you should be able to share that experience, good or bad. We don’t list a place to say we’re endorsing it. We are listing it because it exists, so customers can share their viewpoints, so people are less in the dark when they travel, about what that place is really like.”
Regarding TripAdvisor’s 2016 decision to stop selling tickets and issuing certificates of excellence to many venues featuring wild animals, Kay stresses, “We are not the experts in this area. Everything we have done has been in consultation with many different stakeholders, with many different viewpoints, and obviously the animal welfare groups are an important element of that.
“With animal welfare, you can talk to 10 different experts and get 10 different viewpoints on what is good or bad practice. It is not as if there is a universal criteria that everyone subscribes to or agrees with, which is a challenge for an operation like us with a global footprint. That is why the education route is the best way to go.
“That is ultimately what we see as being the role we can bring as a brand: to help educate consumers and put this issue front of mind when they are considering attractions to go to, but empowering them to make that ethical choice that is right for them, knowing there is not a clear red line where you can say this is good and that is bad.”
Tiger Kingdom, in Phuket, is accustomed to replying on TripAdvisor to online criticism from visitors, and insists the suggestion its animals are drugged is “simply not true”. It also claims its keepers never inflict pain on the tigers with the bamboo sticks they carry.
The sticks are used only “to let the animal know that people are approaching if the animal is asleep, to direct or distract the animal if it becomes necessary, and to safely give the animal a tasty treat as a reward for good behaviour”, park spokesman Beav Binet tells Post Magazine.
Our animals are not circus animals. They are not trained to do tricks. We provide them with daily enrichment to stop them from becoming stressed, and our on-site veterinary teams ensure that they are kept in happy and healthy condition
Beav Binet, spokesman for Tiger Kingdom
Answering the criticisms from animal-welfare groups, Binet continues, “Our tigers are captive-bred and are hand-reared. Research carried out by independent projects has shown that hand-rearing increases the survival rate and reduces stress in captive animals, and this is also the result that we have found in our animals.
“The hand-rearing is also necessary as it creates a bond between the animal and keeper. Through this bond, we are able to pick up on any changes in the animal’s behaviour, or spot any ailments and treat them before they cause serious problems and would require invasive methods of treatment.
“The care of our animals is our number one concern. Our animals are not circus animals. They are not trained to do tricks. We provide them with daily enrichment to stop them from becoming stressed, and our on-site veterinary teams ensure that they are kept in happy and healthy condition.”
Binet concedes that the tigers are kept in unnatural conditions, but adds, “[That] can be said for anywhere that houses captive animals. A natural habitat would be impossible to provide. However, our enclosures have always been built to meet or exceed the standards set out by international zoological associations.
“This said, we agree that captive animals should have as much space as possible and all new enclosures will be built bigger, and whilst we cannot rebuild the existing enclosures, we are working on enhancing the spaces to keep the animals stimulated.”
Binet says the withdrawal of the TripAdvisor certificate of excellence “went unnoticed” but argues, “The campaigns targeting TripAdvisor are not constructive. The removal of attractions from TripAdvisor would only take away a valuable source of information for the consumers. TripAdvisor serves to show potential visitors how actual visitors felt about their experience. Without the listings on TripAdvisor, the public would be far less educated about the attractions. This seems to go against what the charities are trying to achieve.”
In a bizarre twist, Post Magazine discovered a blog written by Binet in 2010, when he worked as a volunteer at sister attraction Tiger Kingdom Chiang Mai, only to leave in disgust after a week. The blog – which was still online last week – describes sadistic keepers beating and taunting terrified tigers, and says the bamboo sticks were used “for beating the tigers into submission”.
Binet also tells of how tigers were kept in small cages in shocking conditions for days at a time and concludes that tigers would be “better off extinct than living like that”.
Asked about the post, Binet says the abusive keepers have since been dismissed and conditions for tigers have improved.
“The only reason I have changed my opinion of Tiger Kingdom and agreed to work with them is because of this massive shift in priorities,” he says. “It is unfortunate that past wrongs can be dragged up from so many years ago, but on the other hand, it serves as an important reminder not to lose focus on continuing to improve the life of our animals and to provide an ethical experience for our visitors.” Simon Parry