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Now that zoos around the world are reopening, we thought it was both timely and important to take a look at what zoo closures have meant to tigers in Thailand.

As COVID-19 continues to affect people from all walks of life, it’s easy to forget about the thousands of captive animals that are facing an uncertain future. Outside of any COVID-19 issues, there is a common argument, on whether zoos should be shutdown to give animals a better way of life. During the COVID-19 outbreak, tiger facilities across Thailand have had their doors ordered closed since late March by the government, and only a few attractions having reopened since then.

There are over 300 tigers at Sriracha Tiger Zoo | For Tigers 2019

Facilities such as Sriracha Tiger Zoo, which alone holds over 300 tigers, are left without any tourists walking through their gates. But what does this mean? Have prayers from individuals been answered with the temporary closure of zoos? Or is this the beginning of a new problem that is shielded from public eyes? With no tourists visiting attractions, this means that facilities are not getting the funds that they need for the day-to-day running expenses of the parks. On the surface, this may mean that there is no exploitation of the tigers, something that many around the world applaud, but is this true or are there deeper underlying issues to these problems that still need to be addressed?

A Break from Exploitation

When looking at tiger attractions across Thailand, a common issue is the tiger photo opportunities that are available to the public. With the public now being removed from the equation, these animals are no longer being forced into interacting with the public purely for their monetary value. The rough handling by keepers that is usually seen within some tiger attractions to get animals to perform would, theoretically, now be removed. Essentially, we like to imagine the tigers now being free to do what they want, without the pressures of both the public and their keepers.

Tiger cage in Chang Siam Park | For Tigers 2019

This may be seen as an advantage to the tigers, but with low levels of welfare standards running across the majority of attractions in Thailand, it’s only a scratch on the surface. Many of the tiger attractions keep their tigers in concrete cages. These cages are usually small in size at around 4m x4m which already limits their freedom of movement. A lack of vegetation is commonly found within their enclosures, and most cages not meeting any species-specific needs, such as ponds or raised platforms. With this in mind, the reality is that the tigers’ lives are much the same as they always were – confined to a concrete cage.

Many facilities across Thailand still don’t offer tigers basic forms of enrichment, without this, both the physical and psychological needs of the animals are at risk. Stereotypical behaviours, such as pacing, are a common sight within certain facilities. A typical day for these animals is usually spent in their empty cages with nothing to do. It is possible that the only forms of enrichment certain tigers will receive is from tourist interaction. Visitor effect research indicates that regular visitor interaction is stressful, but it’s possible that visitor effects can also be enriching or neutral, impacting welfare in different ways. With visitors removed, the question remains – whether retracting tourists away from captive environments is really the answer to improving lives of captive tigers. However, we would still like to point out that we do not endorse/support/encourage any form of hands on interaction with tourists.

Tiger cub at Hua Hin Safari | For Tigers 2020

After a recent visit to Hua Hin Safari and Adventure Park, one of the attractions that has recently reopened to the public, we are worried about what the future may hold. With the park empty apart from ourselves and park workers, it was interesting to discover that despite almost no tourists visiting in park, animals including tigers and elephants were still required to perform shows to empty seats. During our visit, staff asked whether we wanted to see a show, although we declined so the tigers didn’t have to perform that day. Our assumption is that the handlers do this to ensure that the animals don’t forget their training, it shows there is no respite for these animals, regardless if tourists are present or not. Any animal that must perform with humans in any way needs continuous training, especially when the animal in question is a large dangerous predator.

The handling from keepers is still present, with keepers readily interacting with these animals to ensure they remain handleable in the future. Before this visit, it would be easy to assume that all tiger shows and performances would be put on hold for the foreseeable future. But the shows carry on, even without tourists present, indicating that there are welfare issues run deeper than just tourist interactions.

Tourist impact – Going Hungry

One of the obvious consequences of closed facilities is the loss of income. With many facilities holding in excess of 100 tigers, it can be costly to feed so many tigers and maintain facilities and staff, which is where the price of tourists’ tickets comes in to play. In the 13 weeks of lockdown and no tourist income available, it’s easy to see why several Thai facilities, such as Phuket Zoo, have struggled throughout this period of global lockdown.

The lack of income is something that will affect both the staff, and the tigers that they are caring for. The first affected will be the staff working within these facilities. No income implies no funding for staff wages, which will eventually filter down to the tigers. A a lack of continuous income makes it very hard for owners to feed their animals.

Tiger at Hua Hin Safari with an abcess | For Tigers 2020

Medical care for the animals will also be an issue. This was evidenced by our recent visit to Hua Hin Safari and Adventure Park, where a tiger was visible with a large abscess on its underbelly, which appeared to be untreated. Issues such as this will eventually become more common when there are no funds available for the required vet care for the tigers. This leads to the important question of how facilities will combat this budgetary crisis in the short term.

Unfortunately, there is also a concern that tigers will be bred intensively during this period of closure in order to create an income for future use in tourism. These concerns are echoed by World Animal Protection with regards to elephants, based on their open letter to the Thai government demanding a temporary ban on the breeding of captive elephants. Similar to captive tigers, the captive elephants in Thailand are at risk from starvation and lack of appropriate care. The majority of captive elephants are being bred specifically bred for tourism, with their numbers consistently increasing. Without a ban on breeding, an unsustainable situation could be created due to the ongoing crisis within the tourism industry.

The problem of tigers being traded into unknown markets by facility owners is another issue that needs to be addressed. The combination of intensively breeding tigers alongside the threat of them being traded could lead to major welfare issues for tigers across the whole of Thailand. With the level of welfare for captive animals across Thailand considered low, it is easy to see that any increase in captive populations will have detrimental effects. Alongside this, probable tiger farms are doubling up as tourism attractions, with facilities such as these undermining the efforts to protect both wild and captive tigers.

The Future

The situation for tigers in Thailand is bad across the board. In the current climate, it is clear to see that closing zoos, in the short term, is not a viable option in improving an animal’s well-being. With our recent visit to Hua Hin showing no great changes to unfavourable practices such as animal shows, there is evidence to suggest that not much will change once more facilities in Thailand are up and running again. There are also questions whether these practices may become worse now that the lockdown of facilities is eased. With many facilities losing three months of income due to the impacts of COVID-19, only time will tell what facilities will do to increase their income once tourists are welcome once again.

Obviously, there are immediate concerns regarding the current well-being of Thailand’s captive tigers (such as starvation), but unfortunately the issue of bad welfare has been present for years. The situation we are faced with has highlighted the fact that both captive tigers and their caretakers depend on the tourism industry and we are currently faced with an industry in heavy decline. The issue of COVID-19 has highlighted that the tourism industry is at great risk from economic fluctuations, proving that this industry is no appropriate place for captive tigers.

Tiger at Khao Keow Open Zoo } For Tigers 2018

The issues surrounding inappropriate welfare and unethical tourism practises such as tiger shows and tiger selfies will not go away without appropriate action from the public. For Tigers strives to educate the public on unethical practices and how to identify the greater issues affecting captive tigers. Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on captive animals not just in Thailand, but globally. The way that captive facilities emerge from this, could possibly shape the future of captive welfare practices. On the surface it is the point of view that zoos and other captive facilities should be closed and that animals are facing a life sentence being born into captivity, is understandable, but COVID-19 has highlighted much more than this. Short term solutions to improving captive animal welfare can’t begin with the closure of zoos. It’s been widely reported globally that keepers simply can’t afford to feed their animals with their gates closed indefinitely. With the reopening of zoos (from 15th June within the UK) coming with strict social distancing measures, these facilities won’t go back to normal at the flick of a switch.

It is also important to note that a closed zoo will, in general, bring few benefits to anyone. As zoos close, animals will either be put down, left to starve or moved to other, potentially substandard, facilities. Perhaps we should instead be looking for a “new normal”. This can be achieved by zoos looking to visitors for more than a one-time ticket fee, implementing new ideas such as sponsorship programmes, while pledging to use the money for documented improvements of animal welfare. Visitors can simultaneously set higher demands upon zoos, by no longer being willing to sponsor facilities and organisations that support or offer substandard attractions and practices. A large-scale change of what we consider normal may be one of the few ways zoos can stay operative during future crises, while simultaneously putting pressure on continued work towards higher welfare standards.

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