Getting Up Close & Personal With Tigers in Tiger Kingdom
While travelling in a distant land, sometime you come across rare opportunities that are not available in your country or anywhere else in the world.
Imagine, petting and cuddling tigers as if they are your domestic pets. Doesn’t it excite you? Some people may take moral high ground, but let me tell you most of us get excited by mere mention of the idea of hanging out with tigers.
Elephants are the priority animals for travellers in Chiang Mai, but tigers come close second.The Tiger Kingdom is one such place where you can go up close and and have some serious face time with one of the world’s fiercest predators.
Tigers have always fascinated me, but never in my wildest of dreams I could imagine petting them, cuddling them and just playing with them.
But, Is this place Ethical?
Yes this question did occur to my mind. I had a mixed feeling, you never know how the animals are treated and how things work. There is so much written about this place, with people casting their doubt and finding the whole thing unethical and just a tourist trap for earning more money.
But for me this opportunity of getting up close to this magnificent creature was hard to resist. I was far too excited about hanging up with tigers than to care about the ethical angle being discussed so much on social and print media.
Also, I decided to visit Tiger Kingdom first hand, and then form my own opinion.
The verdict will come at the end of the post
How to reach Tiger Kingdom?
Tiger Kingdom is located in Rim Tai, Mae Rim, 20 kms from Chiang Mai city centre. Flag down the Songthaew (tuk tuk) and it will take you to Tiger Kingdom. He will ask you 500 thb for the round trip and after few seconds of haggling will settle for 200 thb. Within 30 minutes you will be at the entrance of Tiger Kingdom.
Is it pricey?
From the price point, yes it is a tourist trap. This is not cheap, in fact it’s too pricey. They have categorised the tigers as – ‘Big’, ‘Medium’, ‘Small’ and ‘Smallest. To get into any of the enclosure you need to shell out 400 to 650 THB, yes, for enclosure. You can choose any of the category or you can choose the combo of all four. The combo of all four is about 1250 THB (if I remember correctly). I decided to go for all four. You can take pictures from your own camera or you can hire a photographer, again for a fees (300 thb).
Do you need a Photographer?
I hired a photographer as I was visiting this place alone and needed someone to take pictures. The handlers do not take pictures for obvious reason that they are there to keep you safe and not to click your pictures.
Even if you are visiting as a group, I would suggest to hire the services of a photographer and let yourself get totally immerse into the experience. Moreover, the professional will certainly do a better job as by now they know all the great poses and the camera angles.
The Little One Conquers the World
I started with the ‘Smallest’, 2-3 months olds, though they call them newborns. I was told that they get newborns sometime but no newborn was available during my visit.
These little little ones are bundle of energy, very active, lively and playful. The handlers were treating them with lot of care and respect. As soon as I entered the cage one ‘kitten’ came running and sat down near me as if I am some long lost friend and meeting him after long time.
The cages are quite big and remarkably clean.
You are not allowed to pick up the little ones nor you can hold them, fetch them or anything. They are free to play around and if they want to play with you, you can play with them. The handlers will tell you how to touch them and play with them in order to avoid hurting the cubs and also yourselves.
My new friend enjoyed tummy tickling game. There is something natural which makes you melt seeing the little ones – whether human, animal or birds.
After play time it was time for some food/milk. Bottle feeding the tiger cub was definitely a highlight.
Though I was yet to meet the big ones, but I already had the best time at this place with these cute cubs. Couple of them were sleepy but most of them were running around crazy.
The photographer was busy taking photographs passing instructions for various poses. The staff was also very polite and were not rushing through the things.
The little ones indeed conquered the world. I wanted to spend more time here, but I had already exceeded my 15 minutes time limit and the other visitors were waiting outside.
Next stop is “Small” tigers.
Little bigger than the newborns
These tiger cubs are about 3-6 months old. They have bigger cages to play around and also the water pond to have fun in water. You have to see them play in water to believe that they are quite active and not sedated.
Medium ones are 9-12 months old and they are quite big, bigger than we had anticipated. They are also very active and playful. It was a great sight seeing them play with each other in the pond.
They are too big to directly play with, but with handlers around we had great time clicking pictures with these cats.
He’s not vegetarian…I hope he’s not hungry… the prey is right beside…
Why some looks drowsy and sleepy?
The explanation given for why some tigers seems drowsy or sedated was reasonable. They explained that the tigers normally sleep 16-18 hours (In the wild they sleep all day and hunt in the night). When they are awakened all day to play and interact with tourists they sometime do get sleepy, and the handlers don’t disturb them and let them sleep.
Next Question : Why don’t they attack?
There are many people volunteering at Tiger Kingdom, and they are from all over the world. I put this question to a young Aussie volunteer and she explained. The tigers do not attack people for few reasons – One, they are very well fed and not hungry, so why will they attack you :-), two, they have grown up around the humans and are used to them so neither feel threatened by visitors nor they see them as their prey; three, they are still young and they haven’t got the hormones active yet to give them the killer instinct. When the tiger reaches the age of about 24 months they are not able to interact with the people as their adult hormones starts to kick in making them more aggressive and dangerous. That explains why you will not find the big cats more than 18 months old for visitor interaction. Once, they are on the verge of adulthood they are taken off from the tourist activity.
What do they do with the adult tigers?
When they become adults, it is time to find their home in various accredited zoos round the world. And some are kept for breeding.
Enter the Big Cats….
Beautiful, majestic and huge….for the first time i got little nervy at this place. But the handlers know their job and they also know how to sooth your nerves. They were quick to tell me how to approach the tiger, where to sit and where to keep my hand on tigers body. Basically, you have to be away from tigers’ head and front paws. The tiger is comfortable with your petting his back or playing with the tail.
It groaned…Intimidating? yes……but by this time I also had my nerves back and I imitated the groan (of course, my groan was soundless). But watch out such groans are capable of causing little accident in the pant.
Coming back to our original question : Is this place ethical?
Yes, you might argue the ethical implications of domesticating a wild animal but tiger kingdom is one of the few places where you can be 100% certain that the animals are not drugged in order to tame them. This is contrary to circus and other abominable places.
Are the methods of taming the tigers reproachable? Yes, I believe they are. But think for a second about another scenario….without money incentives, NOBODY in Thailand could care about the breeding and conservation of tigers and this majestic species will become extinct faster than we can imagine.
The tiger population worldwide is on decline, because of rampant poaching. Trading of body part fetches good money in international market. In my opinion, the only thing saving these animals from extinction is zoos, sanctuaries and conservation park. This may not be ideal for animal, but considering the alternatives, it is very impressive and satisfying to see this in Tiger Kingdom. I found this a lesser evil by leaps and bounds.
Before visiting Tiger Kingdom, I had gone through tons of reviews on the net. While many people enjoyed this place and had good things to say, there are equal numbers who do not find such places ethical and chooses to stay away. Fine, I go by my gut feelings when it comes to such matters. I am glad that I visited Tiger Kingdom and left this place with clear conscience.
Other tiger places in Thailand
Tiger Kingdom has one more branch in Phuket, which again has the same kind of setting and provides the same experience. I have not been there but I’m told that it is similar to the one in Chiang Mai.
Then there is Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi near Bangkok, run by monks. This place is little different in terms of setting but again claims about tiger breeding and conservation. Tiger Kingdom has only ignited my urge to visit Tiger Temple in future. I will post my findings and frank opinion very soon. So stay put till then. Subscribe to my Newsletter and you will come to know when that post goes live.
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