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Pictorial: Crouching Tigers
by Maciej Tomczak, December 2006

Desmond Morris once suggested that humans, being the omnipotent species, have a contractual obligation to compensate animals for losses and abuses: the animals have met their end of the deal already. Slowing down the extinction of endangered species is one of the tactics to fulfill the liability.

Despite their controversial consumerism and questionable intentions, well-run zoos (and much less so well-run circuses) try not to be the instruments of oppression they used to be. Artificially supporting and breeding rare animals kept in captivity saved many species from perishing.

The population of Indochinese (Corbett's) tigers dwindled to some 200-500 wild animals living in what's left of the forests along the Burmese-Thai border. Deforestation, along with poaching driven by the the brisk Chinese market for animal body parts, are believed to be responsible for the decimation.

Branded The Tiger Temple, Wat Pa Luangta Bua near Kanchanaburi in western Thailand promotes itself as a Buddhist animal sanctuary. Although the temple's holdings are diversified (it keeps deers, boars, water buffaloes, gibbons, horses and peacocks), its 18 tigers are by far the most powerful magnet for the thousands of visitors coming to see the place each month.

The temple and its tigers received considerable publicity lately, including the 2004 and 2005 Animal Planet's documentaries and the Time Magazine feature that picked the temple as one of the Best in Asia 2006 (in for-the-soul section). The word is that the tigers, following the Buddhist persuasion, abandoned their hunting instincts and freely roam the temple grounds, communing with the monks and frolicking with prey animals and the public.

Presently, the tame tigers are kept in cages. Each afternoon, an army of lay handlers parade them on leashes to the man-made sand pit nearby. The temple's abbot walks the last tiger and a crowd of paying visitors follows. Once in the quarry, the tigers are chained to the eyelets cemented in the ground and the audience is allowed to have photographs taken while petting the cats. The show lasts for three hours.

There have been 14 tigers born at the temple in the last five years. The risk of inbreeding is high.  Along with booming ticket and trinket sales, the temple solicits donations to built a grandiose open-air moated enclosure for the tigers, complete with a parking lot, viewing boardwalks, a restaurant and a gift shop.

p.s. (July 2008): A UK-based charity, The Care for the Wild International (CWI), published a  report on its 2-year-long investigation of the Tiger Temple, accusing it of hypocrisy, misconduct, animal trafficking and abuse.  The CWI filed a complaint with the Thai National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department.  Thai authorities promised to 'inspect' the temple.


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