Tiger tourism is a popular attraction in Thailand, where visitors can pay to feed, pet, and take photos with tigers. Over 50% of zoos which house tigers offer some type of interactive experience. Tiger cubs are one of the most popular attractions in Thailand’s tiger tourism industry and can be found in over 40% of zoos which house tigers. Photo and feeding interactions with young cubs can fetch prices as high as 2000 THB (£44.80 approx.) which is considerably more than similar interactions with adult tigers (900 THB/£20.16 approx.)(1).
To offer this interaction, zoos must have a plentiful supply of cubs. “Speed breeding” is a term used to refer to the practice of regularly breeding tigresses and removing their cubs from them as young as two weeks old, so that they can be bred again shortly. This practice has detrimental effects on the welfare of mothers and cubs and can cause stress for both. Separating cubs from their mothers this early can also have consequences on their development as in the wild they will typically stay with their mothers for up to two years. Frequent interactions will also expose the cubs to being mishandled by visitors, which can cause stress and injury (2).
Cubs under the age of five months are the most desirable, and often cost the most. Cubs
aged 1-8 weeks are described as “newborn” and are the least commonly found in zoos. Interactions with these can cost around 1500 – 2000 THB (£33.60-44.80 approx.). Cubs aged 2-5 months, typically described as the “smallest” tigers in tiger facilities, can cost around 1300 THB. From 6-13 months cubs are considered “small”, and the price for interactions drops to only 900 THB (£20.15 approx.). The price for interactions with adult tigers is similar but can increase when you reach “giant” size tigers, which are often large adult males (1200 THB/£26.87 approx.)(1,3).
During the covid-19 pandemic, the number of cubs in zoos dropped significantly. From our annual reports, we observed an average of 2.8 cubs per zoo in 2019, which dropped to 1.5 during 2020 and lower still to 0.5 in 2022 (2021 skipped for insufficient data).
With the closure of Thailand’s borders in April 2020 (4) it’s fair to assume that this decrease in cubs came from the drop in tourism.
The Covid-19 pandemic had significant effects on most zoos in Thailand, many of which were temporarily closed. Some were unable to reopen, and others underwent massive transformations during this time. One notable example of this is the rebranding of Sriracha Tiger Zoo, now Tiger Topia, which was one of the biggest breeders of cubs pre-pandemic (28 cubs observed in 2019 and 14 in 2020). Following their rebranding, they have not yet displayed any cubs. Many other zoos show a similar change and have fewer tigers on display following their reopening.
In this year’s welfare research, we observed an average of 1.5 cubs per zoo. This comes about following the release of all covid-19 restrictions in October 2022 (5). The increase in tiger cubs between the 2022 and 2023 assessments reflects the return of tourists to Thailand, and we can expect to see this number increase in future assessments. The rising number of tiger cubs is concerning because it indicates that some zoos may have returned to practicing speed breeding, which will come at a cost to the tigers’ welfare.
Tiger Kingdom Phuket. Tiger Kingdom. [cited 2023 Jul 18]. Buy Tickets Online | Tiger Encounters | Phuket. Available from: https://www.tigerkingdom.com/phuket
World Animal Protection. Tiger selfies exposed: A portrait of Thailand’s tiger entertainment industry. 2016; Available from: https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/sites/default/files/media/int_files/tiger_selfies_exposed_a_portrait_of_thailands_tiger_entertainment_industry.pdf
Tiger Park Ltd. Tiger Park Ltd. [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Jul 18]. Available from: http://tigerpark.co.th/
Rajatanavin N, Tuangratananon T, Suphanchaimat R, Tangcharoensathien V. Responding to the COVID-19 second wave in Thailand by diversifying and adapting lessons from the first wave. BMJ Global Health [Internet]. 2021 Jul 1 [cited 2023 Jul 18];6(7):e006178. Available from: https://gh.bmj.com/content/6/7/e006178
ThaiEmbassy. Thailand Travel Restrictions | ThaiEmbassy.com [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2023 Jul 18]. Available from: https://www.thaiembassy.com/travel-to-thailand/thailand-travel-restrictions