Mellow yellow Tiger Temple

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Mellow yellow Tiger Temple

Saturday September 26, 2009

Note from Tiger News: Please see the following links for more information and Care For The Wild International’s report on The Tiger Temple:

Thailand’s Tiger Temple this year marked its 10th anniversary. The attraction, complete with live tigers that you can pat, may not be in the best possible taste, but that’s set to change.

At the entrance, a guide resplendent in yellow nail varnish stuns onlookers with an announcement.

“I’ve been bitten — several times,” she says, immediately raising the question of where her scars and gashes are.

After all, she is not talking about toy dogs or tabbies, but tigers.

Well, baby tigers, she explains. Still, we are rattled because the selling point of Tiger Temple in western Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province is touchy-feely encounters with tigers, full-grown ones in most cases.

Friend of the beast

Until now, my closest tiger encounter has been with tiger balm, the red-hot gunk you rub into your flesh to soothe aching muscles. As a result I’m twitchy as I wait in the queue, which is worthy of Madame Tussauds or the Louvre.

The arena into which we are corralled proves to be very different from reports.

For a start, it lacks walls and standard house-of-worship bric-a-brac — not one golden Buddha is visible in the late-afternoon sunshine. But there are tigers, lots of them — the larger ones chained — all sprawling in a canyon naturally gouged from sandstone cliffs and equipped with a waterfall neatly situated at the back in a nice feng shui touch.

The waterfall’s whispering induces a sense of calm. Warning me against kicking the tigers (as if!), the guide with the wacky nail varnish ushers me into the arena. Another guide then takes over, grabbing my little finger and steering me towards the first tiger in view, which proves to be huge, the size of the songthaew (converted pickup truck) in which I rolled up in.

Unlike the braveheart before me, who bullishly rubbed the tiger’s stomach, I dither. My hand hovers above the animal’s flank for an eternity before gingerly settling on the rough fur. The tiger just keeps gazing dreamily at the horizon through glowing eyes sunk in a giant, grizzled head like the sun.

The guide grabs my camera and snaps a shot of the feline titan and me (nervously eyeing the lens). Next, faced by an even bigger super-predator, I summon a strained smile, which proves hard to rekindle when two tigers at the following station tussle, tails flailing.

Only by the final station, after more hand-holding and rigid posing, have I grasped how to beam a confident smile and pat the tiger firmly. If you stroke a tiger tentatively, it may feel tickled and bite your head off. Instead, most just loll in the sun.

“Why are the tigers asleep?” the brochure asks in its FAQ section.

Tiger abode

The reason that they flop like reclining Buddhas is that most cat species sleep during the day. They become more animated during the evening when the temperature drops.

Tiger Temple’s dream team is especially mellow because all the tigers have been hand-raised and imprinted to humans. As a result, they have no fear of people. The fierce behaviour displayed by some captive tigers comes from placing wild animals in cramped, stressful quarters.

Tiger Temple, now in its 10th year, is good value on the thrill front — more buzzy than Canberra Zoo’s comparatively low-key meet-a-cheetah experience, if a touch “naff” as the English say, like the loud Tiger Temple T-shirts worn by the Bangkok tourists.

Critics question the temple’s touted green credentials.

One of the biggest Danish tour operators has boycotted the Kanchanaburi landmark because of “highly dubious circumstances”.

In truth, the temple seems like a gimmick that has had its day, and it’s about as green as Hello Kitty Land, if hushed and sprinkled with a dusting of religion as embodied by the presence of the crook-clutching, saffron-robed abbot.

In response to criticism, the temple has launched it Tiger Island Construction Project. This initiative means that a 4.8ha walled island retreat will be built for the tigers about 200m from the entrance. The result will be more space for the tigers and more safety for the visitors — at the cost of a loss of intimacy. So the move might be seen as defeating the point.

But in future, Tiger Temple will be more than a roomy zoo with a cool name. The new enclosure will be deployed for cub training, so that they learn to survive in the jungle.

Tiger Temple began as a humble sanctuary for a single injured jungle fowl that subsequently swelled into a colony. The colony’s uproar attracted peacocks. Next came a wild boar, paving the way for the 1999 introduction of the first Indochinese tiger — a poorly and terrified cub whose mother had been killed by poachers on the Thai-Burma border.

Today, the temple near the border of Burma amounts to a slow Sunday tick-it-off-the-list attraction with a weird circus vibe. When everyone has had a smidgeon of quality time with a selection of performers, we are funnelled into a quasi-biblical procession over the dusty ground strewn with vanilla pods.

At the front of the line stands the abbot, Pra Acharn Phusit (Chan) Kanthitharo, feeding an overgrown tiger milk from a teet.

We are meant to file up individually for a photograph in keeping with the mood of cool order that the guides encourage. But one wayward snapper equipped with a trilby and big black specs breaks loose from the crowd and, Dalek-style, homes in close to the subject. Another stranger loses it and does exactly what we have been forbidden to do — dart right in front of the tiger.

“Ooy!” A groan of horror goes up.

Instead of going ape and tearing the fool apart, the big baby clasped by its master just keeps sucking. Only when the photographers are satiated does it swagger off, escorted by its handlers, suddenly more like a muay Thai champion or Western gunslinger than a suckling infant.

Howl of controversy

A report released by the UK-based conservation group, Care for the Wild International (CWI), last year claimed that the monastery has been trading the animals illegally with a tiger farm in neighbouring Laos.

“What we feel is important is that people know this is not real conservation — people are being fooled. They are exploiting wildlife,” said CWI South-East Asia director Guna Subramaniam.

The monks, however, insist that the tourist dollars and website donations will go towards deploying tigers in the forests of Thailand, where they number about 500 at most.

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