No Nirvana for Buddha’s Tigers at Thailand’s Tiger Temple

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Our hulking air-conditioned tour bus veers off the highway about three hours west of Bangkok and pulls into a parking lot that overnight rains have turned into a trampled morass of tire treads and puddles. The countryside is verdant with forest and plantation but here it is oddly arid, with scant undergrowth. A house-sized concrete sculpture of a tiger and its cub greets us. High walls rise behind the rusty-smelling wrought-iron gate, outside which stalls selling fried snacks, cold drinks and lottery tickets are decorated with cramped cages in which dolorous myna birds and thumb-sized finches are confined, their songs long stolen. Banteng, deer and wild boar, along with peacocks and buffalos, roam untethered inside. An animal smell is afoot, the kind you’d find at a small-town zoo – a sad odor of decayed food, unkempt fur and beastly excrement. The spoor of derelict captivity in which all hope of freedom has dissolved. My heart sinks in it.

Wat Pa Luangta Bua Mahasampanno, known to the world (and the worldly) as the Tiger Temple, is a unique monastery in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province. Here, Theravada Buddhist monks in ochre robes walk the Eightfold Path to salvation with tigers trotting placidly at their heels. They go about this business with smug St-Francis-of-Assisi-like nonchalance. A sign outside informs us that this is a center for conservation. That claim is put to test as our tour group walks in, and remains unresolved as we walk out. Our minds joust with doubt.

Clearly, not all tourists here are troubled by the dilemma some of us are wrestling with, for most are curious thrill-seekers who gawp as about fifteen striped beasts are led by handlers in pale pink printed tees to the exhibition arena where they loll about and flip over on their backs, sinewy limbs flailing, hot mouths panting in the muggy heat. In long, snaking lines the visitors crowd outside the ticket booths, shelling out 600 baht a head (about $19/ INR 1,140) for an entry ticket. Flex posters advertise the many entertaining activities (at extra charge) that they can enjoy with these wild carnivores whose lifelong captivity and dependence on humans has stunted their predatory instincts and made them languid and benign. Further ahead, another banner features a composite of visitor photographs — all are seen posing with the animals with broad, gob-smacked grins. The tigers aren’t smiling.

Presently, the show begins. Eager visitors file patiently for an opportunity to stroke a tiger’s back and be photographed in the act. At the entrance, visitors are mandated to sign an undertaking absolving the temple management of responsibility in case of accidents, but volunteers — who are mostly young Britons, Americans and Australians — stand between the tigers and us, ensuring that a safe distance is always kept. To ensure there are no untoward incidents, the cats wear heavy iron collars and are leashed by stout iron chains to poles, low trees, or pegs driven firmly in the ground.

A tourist poses with a tiger cub

A tourist poses with a tiger cub

There are rules: No abrupt head-on approaches, no turning your back to the tigers, no stroking heads and necks. No feeding. No crouching at eye level. No selfies (a handler or volunteer will take your trophy photograph). Basically, nothing that might awaken the cats’ somnolent animal instinct. There is a dress code, too, although it is unclear whether it applies to the monastery or as a precaution while interacting with the tigers: No sleeveless attire for women, no shorts (save those that fall below the knee) and no bright colors. A kitschy, snigger-evoking sign depicts all of these instructions graphically so as to not tax the imagination. A visitor quips, “Are these tigers or Taliban?”

A monk saunters up to a chained tiger and sits cross-legged beside it. He hauls the tiger’s enormous head into his lap and scratches its ears, ruffles its whiskers, and tugs at its maw to reveal yellowed eight-inch canines. There is no ostensible reaction from the tiger but the spectators gasp in awe. A few feet away, a handler berates a half-grown tiger cub for its mischief. The monk stands up, walks toward the cub and chatters to it, smiling lovingly. He pulls at the cub’s tail and leads it, still grasping its tail up above its back, to the larger tiger. The cub, playful again, begins to harry the older cat, climbing on its back and nibbling the nape of its neck. The larger tiger growls, presses back its ears, and bares its fangs in warning at the cub. It was the most expressive display of aggression from a tiger I would see that day. As for the human handlers, they slap the beasts on their backs, snub their noses, pull their tails, and threaten them with sticks, at which the tigers cringe back with their eyes shut, a startling behavior that suggests that there might have been more than an element of cruelty involved in taming them.

The afternoon gets hotter and muggier. My shirt sticks to my back, sodden with sweat. The tigers feel the heat, too. They stretch out on their backs like oversize puppies. A handler, equally bothered by the heat, flops on the rump of a dozing tiger as if it were a sofa. Monks and handlers move among the cats, spraying water on their muzzles from plastic Coke bottles with perforated tops. The animals slurp thirstily. Tigers are habituated to cooling off in water on hot days; short swigs of water keep their bodies from overheating.

Relief is near. The scene shifts to a ‘canyon’ where the tigers indulge in watersports, splashing in a pool of turbid water and leaping high in the air after polythene garbage bags dangling from poles. Other tigers wait their turn to perform. For a fee, visitors can ‘walk’ the tigers individually to the canyon: they are instructed to grip the iron collar tightly and stay behind the tiger’s shoulder. Works up the adrenalin, I imagine. Occasionally, a male tiger might heed his territorial instinct and spray a hot jet of foul-smelling urine behind it. Visitors are warned, but often the careless are drenched. A tiger we are trailing stops in its tracks to leave a queasy pile of droppings. There are traces of blood.

How to piss off a tiger. Or not.

How to piss off a tiger. Or not.

In the wild, tiger scat contains matted herbivore hair. The hair functions as roughage in the animal’s diet and is thought to maintain the health of its digestive system. The tigers at the temple, however, are wanting for such dietary fiber. Beef or other red meat is expensive to source in Thailand and unaffordable on a daily basis, though the temple doubtless makes a packet from gate collections, donations and other fees. Volunteers entrusted with the task of feeding the tigers informed us that the cats are fed a ‘pre-mix’ of rice noodles, chicken broth and vegetables. A household tabby might cringe at the taste (perhaps even the thought), but the tigers – prisoners of humanity’s war against nature – wolf down what is offered without complaint.

I learn that there are about a hundred and fifty tigers at the tiger temple including a number of cubs. The older animals are cantankerous and not well disposed to crowds, and so are kept confined. Young males and cubs are more suitable for shows and petting. Females, the volunteers tell us, can be unpredictable. “In the long run, they are more loving,” announces the dreadlocked Australian lead volunteer on a microphone, intoning dramatically like an emcee at a WWE match. “But you have to work on them – take them shopping and stuff.”

The crowd guffaws. This show smacks of something medieval – a Roman circus.

An adult tiger may weigh anywhere between 150 to 200 kilograms, so the muscular force behind a gentle swipe of its paw is enough to shave the smile off a face. But the threat of a gruesome accident is merely academic. In nature — as in our minds — tigers are meant to be wild, meat-devouring predators burning bright in the forests of the night. We are conditioned to associate them with bloodthirsty ferocity. Here, at a temple named for them, they are reduced to languid kitties chewing idly on twigs and yearning for their lunch of pad thai. It is discomfiting to watch an animal whose natural instincts have been dulled.

It is evident that the monks adore their pets. A lot. Which had me wondering what becomes of the Buddhist philosophy of detachment from worldliness. Can feelings of attachment to an oversize, cuddly pet be bereft of the covetous desire to be loved back?

Few others here appear to be troubled by such philosophical ruminations. The specter that haunts my mind is one of so many Calvins at play with so many Hobbeses. And I cannot tell for sure if the emotion is wholly requited. For, occasionally, you can see a tiger rub its flank against a monk’s knee, or crane its neck for a snack as a cat might, but for the most part the cats lie idle and bored. This has given rise to speculation that they might be sedated. Then again, those who know cats better also know that this perceived laziness might just be typical feline behavior.

It strikes me that the stuff in the plastic bottle might not be all water. I remember reading that handlers collect tiger urine to spray it on the faces of the more aggressive cats in order to induce a fear-based submissive response. Tigers, like most wild carnivores that lead a solitary existence, use urine to assert their territorial claims. When urine is squirted on their faces, it represents a similar territorial threat from a more dominant animal. The handlers exploit the tigers’ behavior to subdue them. That is not the end of the cruelty the cats must endure. Pulling the tigers’ tails is known to cause spinal injuries while a diet low on nutrient-rich red meat can cause physical deformities and other complications.

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A monk walks a chained tiger to the ‘canyon’ for the entertainment of visitors gathered there

The monks, who have hand-reared these tigers from infancy, might view their keeping the tigers here as an act of compassion. To wildlife activists, this pious defense is balderdash. There are disturbing whispers afoot that this monastery steeped in compassion and dhamma abets the illegal and highly lucrative tiger parts trafficking racket that can be traced to China’s inexhaustible appetite for ingredients to run its thriving traditional medicine market, a gigantic black hole into which other wildlife contraband such as rhino horn and elephant ivory also disappear.

Tiger bones and organs are used in Chinese traditional medicine to prepare prized aphrodisiacal cure-alls for low virility and venereal disease. International law prohibits the illegal trade in tiger parts. Thailand is a signatory to the multilateral treaty CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the most recent conference of which was held in Bangkok in March 2013. Under Thailand’s Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Act 1992, breeding or keeping captive tigers requires a government license. No such license exists with the temple, although it has bred several generations of tigers since the first cubs came to stay. Further, the tigers here belong to both the Indochinese and Royal Bengal subspecies, which certified zoos never interbreed in order to maintain the genetic pedigree of the captive population.

Visitors jostle each other to photograph the tigers

Visitors jostle each other to photograph the tigers

National Geographic wildlife photographer Steve Winter, in his commendable book (with Sharon Guynup) Tigers Forever – Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat, writes that in 2002, under pressure from global tiger conservation watchdogs, Thailand’s Department of National Parks ‘confiscated’ the cats and ordered that they be kept at the temple temporarily until they could be relocated to a suitable sanctuary. That day, Winter notes with chilling brevity, never came. Under international pressure, the temple authorities later agreed to transfer the tigers to a specially constructed ‘Tiger Island’ from where the tigers could be released into the wild, but the latter part of those plans have yet to see the light of day. Besides tigers, the temple has bears (visitors can play with the cubs for a fee) and two ferocious lions rescued from drug dealers that are better heard than seen.

The story goes that the temple’s current population of tigers (estimated at 130-150 animals) grew from rescued cubs “donated” to the temple in 1999-2000, about five years after it was established in 1994. It is possible that the cubs were the orphaned offspring of wild tigers killed by the deadly poaching ring that supplies Chinese buyers.

Two tigers engage in a playful interaction

Two tigers engage in a playful interaction

Tigers incapable of fending for themselves in the wild are useless for the conservation of a flagship species whose numbers have dwindled globally to a precarious 3,200-odd wild individuals — and even that is a pessimistic estimation as the illicit trade in tiger pelts and body parts continues unabated, boosted by Chinese demand.

In 2008, Care for the Wild International,a UK-based wildlife charity, published a comprehensive and disturbing report on the machinations of the Tiger Temple. Investigators, who worked covertly as volunteers at the Tiger Temple, have speculated that tigers born here had been moved across international borders without the necessary permits. It is feared that they were spirited away to ‘tiger farms’ in Laos and Cambodia, nations well known to abet the trade in wildlife contraband and supply buyers in China. The CWI report raises concerns that the temple violates a number of international laws, including those related to indiscriminate breeding, housing, treatment and trafficking of tigers. It also cites incidents of cruelty, confinement and malnutrition of the animals at the Tiger Temple, some at the hands of the monks and even the chief abbot who have chosen the path of ahimsa. Documentary photographs support these reports. These findings make the Tiger Temple’s positioning as a center of conservation baseless. Worryingly for conservationists, it functions more as a tiger farm than a zoo, for any kind of zoological park is bound to meet requirements stipulated by the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria. And that is anything but good news for tiger conservation as it only escalates the demand for tiger parts in the market and keeps the supply chain alive.

A handler treats a reclining tiger as a seat

A handler treats a reclining tiger as a seat

The volunteer program at the Tiger Temple draws plenty of young people, mostly Americans, Britons and Australians, who seem to believe in the nobility of their work. One young bloke, barely out of his teens, regaled us with a sermon on how he had forfeited the comforts of a home and given up on an education to endure the hardships of staying at a monastery to take care of tigers. Like the other volunteers, he was in dire need of perspective, for there are several legitimate tiger charities that could use a helping hand.

The heat, combined with the smell of confinement, makes the atmosphere stifling. The circus at the canyon trips into a higher gear as the crowd closes in for its afternoon entertainment. My mind murky with thoughts, I join my group as it heads back to the air-conditioned comfort of the tour bus.

The monks at the Tiger Temple may be on the path to salvation, but for the tigers no such karmic fulfillment is in sight. Would it be different, I wonder, if they were reborn as humans?

This post was first published on Yahoo India Travel. Link here

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