The constant struggle that tigers are under to survive in the wild is being put into the spotlight more than ever with September being designated as ‘National Save a Tiger Month’ in America. With less than 4,000 tigers reportedly left in the wild, these figures are a major cause for concern. There are world wide conservation efforts being put forward by a number of large organisations such as WWF to highlight the major threats to wild tigers and being able to nullify them before its too late. However, we feel it’s important to also recognise the plight of captive tigers and the struggles that they are also under to survive, albeit in a different environment.
An interesting statistic to consider is the fact there are more tigers living in captivity within the USA than there are in the wild across the globe. Within the USA, there are no federal laws regulating the possession of exotic animals though various states have banned ownership. The numbers of captive tigers across the globe are increasing year by year, in many cases with no real regulation or any mention towards the wider public of the suffering that these animals may endure.
Being able to identify the pressures that captive tigers are under and spreading this knowledge to a wider audience is something that can be easily achieved. Tigers are found in zoos and wildlife parks around the world, with thousands of people viewing them each day. Giving the public an understanding of how both the physical and mental well-being of a tiger is affected within a captive environment, can help them make smarter decisions in their choices of where to visit.
With animal tourism being a massive global issue, especially the use of tigers for photos across South East Asia, spreading awareness to a wider audience regarding the going’s on behind the scenes of their “dream” experience, is a necessity. These interactive tiger encounters are very demanding on the tiger, as they often require intensive breeding, poor housing and nutrition and an increase in the probability of the tigers developing stereotypical behaviours.
It can be hard to judge whether a facility is worth visiting, especially in a foreign country. However, there are a few simple steps that can be followed to identify any negative issues and to help spread the word to a wider audience:
Initial research into the way a facility is run alongside the programmes it offers, can indicate what a facility’s aims really are.
For example, a facility with a vast number of cubs and interactive experiences often means they are practicing irresponsible breeding. These facilities often mislead, suggesting to visitors that they are a conservation programme, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. If a facility is part of a registered breeding programme they will only have a few cubs at a time, with all of these cubs being housed with their mothers and no tourist interactions.
Facilities that offer shows with their tigers performing unnatural behaviours, such as jumping through hoops of fire or walking on their hind legs should be avoided. Whereas a facility that has a hands off approach with an enrichment programme demonstrating a tiger’s natural climbing or swimming abilities is certainly worth checking out.
It’s important to note that good welfare is not always defined by what is seen on the surface giving visitors a false impression of good welfare. In many cases there is a vastly different setup behind the scenes.
Poor welfare standards include tigers being housed in unnatural environments such as small cages with concrete floors and no access to a natural substrate or vegetation. The lack of any mental or physical stimulation in the form of enrichment items is another important sign indicating poor welfare standards. Simple things like whether water is accessible to the tiger at all times goes to further this. It is also important to notice how the tigers react when their keepers are around. Cowering, flinching, baring of teeth and snarling vocalisations are all signs of both anger and stress.
Signs of good welfare involve the tigers being free to roam in large species-specific enclosures. These should include multiple areas for the tigers to hide from the public alongside stimulation through the form of enrichment to help promote natural behaviours; all good indications that a good standard of welfare is in place.
Although the encounters that facilities offer seem like once-in-a-lifetime experience, visitors should not be fooled by what is being offered. Any hands on interaction with tigers should be avoided. If people cease to use the encounters that facilities are offering, they will end up making no profits, which would hopefully see the end to such practices.
Instead, participating in a hands off, educational behind the scenes programme would be more beneficial to all.
Visitors should also not be afraid to write bad reviews of any facility that they encounter. Being able to inform others of what is going on is the best way for people to avoid using certain experiences and encounters but also to promote ethical ones. In addition, writing to tour companies to request any attractions with a poor standard of welfare to be removed from their itineraries is another way to get one’s voice heard and encourage more responsible travel.
The global situation of both wild and captive tigers is currently in a position that can be greatly improved. Finding a way to improve the research efforts helping to preserve the world’s wild tiger population should be matched with a plan to ensure the safe keeping and high welfare standards of captive tigers.
This September, help save a tiger by educating others, putting that desire for a tiger “selfie” aside and visiting captive tigers responsibly.