The heartbreaking reality for tigers in this map of Thailand

It's a map of a country familiar to many travellers but on closer inspection it reveals a heartbreaking reality.

The dots on this map of Thailand, below, highlight locations of zoos where tigers are kept in captivity under "shocking" conditions and forced into gruelling and often violent training to put on shows for tourists.

And the problem appears to be getting worse.Animal rights group World Animal Protection has revealed findings from its secret investigation into 17 major Thai entertainment venues in its report, Tiger selfies exposed: a portrait of Thailand's tiger entertainment industry.

The report is the first comprehensive analysis of the use of tigers in entertainment in Thailand, World Animal Protection said.

And it follows growing outrage about the use of these animals in tourism in light of Thailand's Tiger Temple scandal last month.

World Animal Protection researchers anonymously visited 17 tiger tourism venues between March 2015 and June 2016 and found evidence of as many as 830 tigers held captive - 207 more than they found in a similar study in 2010.

Researchers saw the animals subjected to "shocking" conditions - chained, held in small cages, whipped and prodded with bamboo sticks to pose for tourists' photos.

Alarmingly, the research uncovered evidence of possible tiger cub speed-breeding so venues could keep up with the demands of the lucrative tiger entertainment business. There were also discrepancies between the reported number of tigers in these venues and the number witnessed by researchers, World Animal Protection said.

Nicola Beynon, the group's head of campaigns in Australia, said tourists needed to be aware of the cruel practices behind the tourism hot spots.

"Animal lovers on their holidays are unwittingly funding an industry that depends on wild animals being beaten into submission in order to pose for photos," she said.

"We're asking tourists to think about the welfare of the tigers and avoid tiger selfies. If you can get up close, hug or have a selfie with a tiger chances are that animal has been subjected to cruelty."


The harrowing report detailed how tiger cubs were separated from their mothers within two or three weeks after birth, which was followed by "unrelenting handling and stressful interactions with humans, which can lead to injuries" - including being bottle-fed by tourists.

As they got older the tigers were held in small, concrete cages or barren enclosures and chained up. They were subjected to "cruel training methods to prepare for unnatural and stressful performances," according to the report.

A staff member told one of the group's researchers starvation was used to punish the tigers when they made a "mistake" in their routines.

About 12 per cent of the tigers observed showed behavioural problems, which including repetitive pacing and biting their nails, the report said.

And the venue with the poorest treatment of tigers also happened to be the largest in Thailand - Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Pattaya, which had the highest number of tigers in captivity.

A young tiger kept in a cage. Photo / World Animal Protection
A young tiger kept in a cage. Photo / World Animal Protection

Tigers there were forced to perform stunts for tourists including jumping through burning hoops, balancing on tight wires and walking across small platforms.

"Throughout the shows, the animals are also made to roll over on command, jump up and assume unnatural sitting positions," the report said.

"Trainers use pieces of food for rewards, but also have a sturdy whip to direct and control the behaviour of the tigers.

"Short bamboo sticks are also used to control the behaviour of adult tigers and point their faces in the right direction so visitors can take photos."

Tourists who paid extra at Sriracha could use pellet guns to shoot at boxes that would release pieces of meat for the tigers when hit.

"When the bullseye on the box is hit, food drops down into the enclosure and the tigers run for it," the report said.

"We repeatedly saw the stronger, healthier tigers successfully scrambling for the pieces of meat dropping down. This competition for food was likely to be responsible for a number of tigers appearing underweight."

World Animal Protection researchers said they saw at least one tiger at Sriracha Tiger Zoo "so thin the hips and ribs were visible".

Sriracha's website said it had welcomed more than 10 million visitors since 1997 and reviews by visitors on TripAdvisor for it, as well as other tiger venues, were overwhelmingly positive.

"Tragically these visitors, through the payment of their entrance and ticket fees, are unwittingly funding cruelty and ignorance," World Animal Protection said.


The release of the report comes as Australian activist Sybelle Foxcroft, whose unrelated investigations led to the closure of a Thai "tiger temple", faces a defamation charge brought by the temple.

As an undercover investigator, Foxcroft contributed to a 2008 report into allegations of abuse against the tigers at the temple in Kanchanaburi province, west of Bangkok. The investigations were used in a National Geographic report in January.

The tigers were relocated to other holding pens by Thailand's Department of National Parks officials last month.

But Ms Foxcroft, director of the Australian animal rights group Cee4Life, accused the temple in a second report in June of trading in "tiger body parts, travelling across international borders from the tiger temple".

Siri Wangboonkerd, a lay assistant to the temple's abbot, said Ms Foxcroft had defamed the temple by publishing the report and accusations of selling tigers to Laos - a practice illegal under Thai and international law.

Department of National Parks officials uncovered 60 frozen and bottled cub carcasses and pelts and other endangered species and body parts from the private residence of the abbot while relocating the live tigers. The tourist attraction was shut down.

Thai authorities recently said they would seize about 80 per cent of the temple's land, which will be redistributed to landless farmers.


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