Sundeep Bhutoria

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Toying with tigers?

At the Tiger Kingdom in Phuket, Thailand.
The recent incident of a white tiger in Delhi zoo mauling and killing a boy who fell into the enclosure was a ghastly scene. I was myself very much disturbed by the fact that only last month I was in Thailand and inside a zoo (for a payment) and petting a tiger as if it were a dog and of course coming out safely to tell my story.
I saw the video on YouTube - how the big white tiger toyed with the boy for a while before going in for the final kill. I am sad for the boy but not angry with the tiger. I fully agree with what tiger expert Belinda Wright said, “The tiger was only being a tiger.”
I remember somewhat similar incident that took place at the Alipore Zoological Gardens in Kolkata in 1996 New Years day. A tiger had killed one person who had intruded into the cage and had badly mauled another one. The youth was drunk and had entered the cage with a garland of marigold flowers and tried to put it around the neck of the Royal Bengal tiger (called Shiva) as New Year's greetings. Nearly a thousand people has witnessed the unfolding of the bizarre happening at the Kolkata zoo.
Early last month I was in Tiger Kingdom in Phuket, Thailand. Hundreds of people visit this place to be with tigers – touch them, play with them and get photographed in the enclosures. There are various rates for being with the tigers - the smallest tiger (2 to 4 months), small tiger (5 to 10 months), medium tiger (11 to 15 months) and big tigers (16-36 months) for about 10 minutes. The charges for being with the smallest tiger was the highest because these are difficult to tame.
There were instructions for the visitors, the dos and donts, while in the company of tigers. I, chose a small tiger, and was instructed on how to approach it. I was told that I should gently press the back of the tiger and avoid the head initially.
I was surprised to see how people were fondling, stroking and petting big Royal Bengal tigers roaming freely without chains and getting photographed. I came to know that there were more than one such kind of play-with-tiger zoos in Thailand. Some of them run by Buddhist monks. The tigers are born in captivity and hand-reared on a controlled diet and said to trained to be among people since their formative years of life. Bonding with humans from an early age makes these cats conditioned to be with humans in normal circumstances.
The visitors are, however, warned that they still are wild animals with feral instincts and must be approached with respect. We were told that we should not approach a sleeping tiger with gentle strokes which would tickle them and make irritated. The best way suggested was to cuddle them and stroke them to make them feel comfortable.
With a baby tiger at the Tiger Kingdom
The baby tigers are playful and are likely to play with you. Sometimes, while playing it tends to be a bit rough and bite. Hence, visitors have to be careful while dealing with them. There were also instructions of not to wear bright clothes, dangling jewellery and so on.
Though these zoos, which draw thousands of visitors from across the world, have their share of controversies and minor incidents. There have been allegations that these cats are drugged or sedated to ensure people can approach them. The visitors are made to sign a disclaimer to ensure that they are not sued in case someone is attacked by a tiger.
It was in the news that a girl (University student from London) and her sister from London was attacked by one of the tigers. She survived when one of the keepers jumped into and controlled the tiger which had sunk its teeth in her thighs. She was scarred for life. Reliving the nightmare she had said that everything happened so fast. One minute she was petting the tiger's back and washing it, the next it turned its head and knocked her down to the ground with its paw and sunk its teeth into her left thigh. Had the keeper not intervened, anything could have happened. The staff of the zoo had assured her that the tigers were hand reared and so used to human beings and were completely tame. They had event said that no one had ever been seriously injured.
These places, very few in the world, are immensely popular because they make it possible for visitors to touch the tigers and pose for pictures with the carnivores. Some of these tiger spots, which are described as monastery-cum-wildlife-sanctuary, have over 70 tigers providing incredible photo opportunities for the visitors.
There has been a growing debate on online forums of the ethical issues surrounding such tourist attractions. One of the debates is that it is estimated that there are less than 3500 tigers in the wild at present in the world. While there are more than 10,000 tigers in captivity in the US alone. The tactics being used to keep the big cats from their natural habitat to entertain humans has been raised in many forums and by activist groups.
A controversial report was released in 2008 by Care for the Wild International (CWI) which accused the Tiger Temple, a Theravada Buddhist temple, of becoming a breeding centre to produce and keep tigers solely for the tourists and therefore their own benefit. There is no possibility of the temple's breeding programme contributing to the conservation of the species in the wild the report had said. It also said that the temple had mixed up the genetic pool of the tigers. CWI feels that the Temple's philosophy for animal conservation is flawed. The forest temple had denied any wrongdoings.
Based on CWI's report, a coalition of 39 conservation groups, including, World Wide Fund for Nature and Humane Society International, formed “The International Tiger Coalition”.
Others feel that given the rate at which the world tiger population have been shrinking in the wild, there is nothing wrong it breeding these animals in a controlled set up like these temples. I personally have no moral hangovers for visiting the zoo and can't deny the fact that these cats are majestic and intriguing. All I can say is that the tigers in the zoos of Delhi and Kolkata, are more tiger than the ones I visited and touched in Thailand.
ess bee

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