The Truth about Tiger Kingdom
Interacting with real tigers
I wrote The Truth about Tiger Kingdom to separate rumours and lies from facts and truth. There are currently a lot of “information” regarding drugs and animal abuse at Tiger Kingdom in Thailand.
In 2014, I was accepted as a volunteer at Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai. I’d heard a lot of rumours about drugged animals and abuse. I went there to find out the truth for myself. After spending time with the veterinarian, the staff, tigers and visitors, I finally put together this blogpost to try and correct all the misconceptions on the internet.
Three years later, and I’m still finding “shocking news” and people claiming to know everything about Tiger Kingdom online. So I decided to pay Tiger Kingdom another visit in spring 2017.
News and changes at Tiger Kingdom
Less breeding and fewer cubs
Quite a few changes have taken place at Tiger Kingdom from 2014 when I first visited to 2017 when I re-visited. There’s now less breeding taking place as Tiger Kingdom is slowly making changes. In fact, when I was visiting there were no tiger cubs at the park. However, there are now a few playful lion cubs at Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai. The lions are born in a zoo in Thailand and Tiger Kingdom has an agreement to keep them at the park for the upcoming year before they are returned to the zoo.
In the past, adult tigers were retired at the age of three at Tiger Kingdom. This was due to safety concerns. At the age of three the tigers are fully grown and can sometimes be more difficult to deal with. But, the current tigers Mong Kon and Eff are very friendly at the age of four and they will continue working in the park as long as they remain so. When they retire in the future, they will continue to stay with Tiger Kingdom, at the current park or the New Park but visitors will not be able to pet them.
New education centre for visitors underway
There are some exciting plans brewing, unfortunately I don’t have the authority to reveal everything. BUT there are plans to build an education centre at Tiger Kingdom, Chiang Mai. This will allow visitors to be able to learn more about tigers, both captive and wild. Until the education centre is finished, ask the staff if you have any questions. Be in charge of your own education, leave the tigers with new knowledge!
The future of Tigers
Wild tigers and threats
In the last few years the numbers of wild tigers have gone up to around 3,890 from the estimated 3,200 in 2010, but there’s still a long way to go. Poaching and loss of habitat are still two major problems that threaten wild tigers. Some people believe that if they kill the tiger and keep their skin, they will possess part of their power. These old beliefs is the reason why tigers have such a high value on the black market. Others, kill tigers out of fear if they are seen too near a tribe or village.
Re-introducing captive tigers into the wild
It’s very complicated to re-introduce animals back into the wild. It’s not just a matter of letting them go. Most captive tigers do not know how to hunt or look after their cubs. They also don’t know to fear humans and hide from poachers, since they have previously associated them with food, care and play.
If we want to see a thriving tiger population in the wild in the future, we need to change our way of thinking. The government has some power, yes, but we as people have a say in how we want our government to use their power. I do believe that tigers belong in the wild, but we are the reason that they are not in the wild.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation 93% of tigers’ habitat has been destroyed. This is due to agriculture, timber and road development. The tigers that are left live in small groups which increases the risk of inbreeding and becoming the pray of a poacher.
Working towards a sustainable future
The education centre at Tiger Kingdom, Chiang Mai is a new project that is being planned at the moment. This is just one of many steps to educate people about tigers and their behaviour. A lot of vet-students spend time at Tiger Kingdom to learn about these animals. If a wild tiger is found wounded, personnel from Tiger Kingdom is often called to help treat the animal because of their expertise knowledge. Captive animals can teach us how to help and care for wild animals, if done correctly.
We all believe that wild animals should stay in the wild. I believe that more zoos and animal parks are starting to understand this as well and are moving towards a more sustainable future.
Tiger Kingdom is hoping to use the New Park as a gateway to a change for captive tigers. They’re hoping to work together with The Wildlife Department to help conserve and protect tigers, both wild and captive. This is a long process, although it has already been started, it will take a long time for a big change to happen. I am hopeful that the hard work that we have seen in the last few years will continue to show results for tigers in the wild.
The truth about drug and abuse rumours
It starts with some careless unknowledgeable words from someone on the internet. Someone reads these words as the absolute truth and it is then spread in the digital world. Once something is up on the internet, it won’t come back down. That is how a rumour starts online, and that is how the rumour about drugged tigers at Tiger Kingdom started.
I’ve tried to clarify the truth about some of the most common rumours and incorrect information online below.
How do you know the tigers aren’t drugged?
I spent my first five days at Tiger Kingdom together with the veterinarian of the park. He was in charge of food rations, nutrition supplements, the animals’ general health and the cubs and their well-being.
During my entire stay at Tiger Kingdom, I would arrive before opening hours and leave after closing time with all the employees. I spent a lot of time in the veterinarian’s clinic, I was there for feeding time both for the cubs and the adult tigers and I spent most of my time in the cages with the tigers themselves.
First of all; The tigers are fed early morning (sunrise) and at the end of the day when the tourists leave (sundown). It is impossible to “sneak” the tigers drugs unnoticed in the middle of the day, and there is no drug that would last an entire day.
Second of all; Putting aside the fact that there is no drug that would be effective for 12 hours straight, it is also dangerous to drug these animals. It could potentially make them drowsy and unaware of their surroundings, and thereby dangerous. But also, whenever a tiger needs treatment, it must be sedated for safety reasons. It is not safe for the tiger to be sedated for more than one hour without risk to its life.
Are the tigers abused?
I often see how people write online that the tigers are abused and beaten. This is completely incorrect. The trainers all love the tigers and treat them with respect and affection. The tigers are friendly and can be controlled by the staff because they have been taught since they were cubs what not to do just like you would teach a dog or a pet.
Are the tigers overfed?
It is true that most captive tigers suffer from being overweight. However, it is not limited to only tigers, but all captive animals. The issue lies in trying to replicate the natural diet and surroundings which is more difficult for some species than others.
Visitors themselves and the expectations they bring with them on how a 'real tiger' is supposed to look is a real problem. Complaints about a tiger looking malnourished when it is the ideal weight are a regular occurrence as well as adoration for the chubbier and more huggable tigers.
Tiger Kingdom has nutrition specialists that monitor the tigers food closely and keep tigers on a well-supervised diet to keep them healthy.
How do the tigers get exercise?
One obvious problem in providing enough exercise lies in the lack of space in zoos and animal parks. They simply do not have the capacity for the amount of animals they are housing. Moreover expansion of parks and zoo's is not always possible due to government restrictions, cost etc.
Like most animal parks Tiger Kingdom has a certain amount of land that they are allowed to use. Currently they are at maximum capacity, which is why they are currently working on opening a new park.
In the meantime, the trainers do their best to keep the animals stimulated. You might have seen pictures where a member of staff is holding up a long stick with a big leaf dangling at the end of it. Some have said that this is abuse. But, in reality, this is actually a giant version of a house cat’s toy. It lets the tigers chase after it, as in if they were chasing a prey.
If you are lucky with the timing of your visit, you might see the tigers wrestling in the pools. A lot of people think that these big cats hate water, but at Tiger Kingdom they use the pools to cool down in when the day is at its hottest. You can also see the tigers doing a splash-about wrestling game when they are feeling particularly playful, which tends to happen more often with the younger ones.
Why are the tigers so friendly?
The younger an animal is, the stronger bonds it will create with its caretaker. By being raised by the trainers at Tiger Kingdom, the animal will learn to trust and build a relationship with this person. But each tiger has its own personality, some are friendlier than others, some more trustworthy and some are downright naughty. Just like any person, they are each unique.
They are raised as pets, and the staff tend to think of them a little as overgrown house cats. They are however fully aware of these animals’ nature and that they should never fully trust them. After all, they may not be wild in its proper meaning, but they are by no means domesticated.
The fact that they are lazy and sleep most of the day help a great deal when tourists pet and take pictures with these animals. When the tigers are awake and in the mood for play, it limits how close you as a visitor can get to these animals, and yet many tourists aren’t happy with a sleeping tiger even when it means they can lie down next to it and hug it.
Why do you separate the cubs from their mothers?
The cubs are indeed often separated from their mothers when they are newly born, this is for several reasons.
A big problem among captive animals is that the mothers do not know how to take care of their young, especially first-time mothers. Some mothers have no interest in their young and because of these reasons many cubs would’ve died unless humans intervened. The health of the cub is also an issue since the veterinary cannot properly check the cub while it is together with its mother.
Are tigers being sold on the black market?
Tigers are endangered and put under high protection in Thailand. All captive tigers are have individual micro chip numbers to identify them and are listed with the Wildlife Department. They’re very strict with checking on each individual tiger to make sure they’re all accounted for. This is to protect the tigers and make sure they are not illegal sold.
Tiger Kingdom sometimes move tigers within their three different parks, or between other zoos or animal parks, but most tigers stay in the park for the duration of their lives.
What happens when the tigers retire?
As a visitor at Tiger Kingdom you have quite a few different age groups of tigers that you can visit. You might have thought about what happens to the tigers when they are no longer cubs, and why the park isn’t overrun by adult tigers.
Actually, the park is overrun by tigers, which is why there are now three parks and a fourth will be seen in a near future. The tigers retire from the tourist around the age of three when trainers deem it’s time. This is due to safety worries. The trainers still spend time with the retired tigers, and the tigers are still rotated so they get a chance to exercise.
A few selected tigers are also used for breeding, but as there is a big shortage of new genes inbreeding remains a problem with endangered captivity animals.
Why aren’t you returning them to the wild?
All the tigers at Tiger Kingdom are born in captivity. A captive animal cannot be introduced into the wild without high costs and big time commitments, and even then their survival is not guaranteed.
Even if there was a program to introduce these animals into the wild, where would they go? Where would they be safe from poachers and from each other? You cannot put just any tigers together and expect them to get along.
As far as I’m concerned, people are the ones who should be watching animals from within bars. But today that is not always possible, so then at least I feel like we should give these animals as much freedom as we possibly can within a cage.
Give them life quality. That is not an assignment, it’s an ongoing project.
The difference between Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom
It is important to note that there are in fact TWO very different parks in Thailand. The first is Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, which is famous for the monks who casually interact with the tigers. The second is Tiger Kingdom which has parks in Chiang Mai, Phuket and Ubon and a fourth park on the way.
Tiger Temple and chained tigers
Tiger Temple started with a monk who was given a large piece of land. People then (supposedly) brought animals to him to care for. That is how the park started. Today however the Tiger Temple is in the hands of the government. I do not know why there was a change in ownership, but there are many rumours circling around that I will not address in this article.
I did visit Tiger Temple, but note that this was only as a visitor, just like all the other tourists. They have quite a large area of land that unfortunately could be used in a better way for the animals. The tigers at Tiger Temple were sleeping in the hot sun during my visit, which in itself is not very surprising considering their nature.
I did not expect to see that all the tigers were chained up and could not move around freely. A few of the younger tigers were walked around the park in a leash by employees. I had about 10 minutes in the tiger enclosure together with a stressed employee.
At the time of my visit, July 2014 the employees had to hold your hand for the entire stay inside the enclosure. I did not get a chance to take pictures myself but had to hand over my camera to the employee while I awkwardly posed with one tiger at a time. I also did not learn anything about the animals themselves during my visit. I am sure that Tiger Temple has a way to give their animals the exercise they need, but I did not see how.
Tiger Kingdom - A friendlier alternative
Tiger Kingdom is privately owned by a woman named Kochakorn Chaiyabut. (Update: The ownership of the park may change in the future due to the owners separating.)
The first branch of the company opened as Ubon Zoo in Thailand. In 2008, a second park was opened; Tiger Kingdom Chiang Mai. Within the last few years a third park has opened in Phuket. Due to lack of space, a fourth park will be opened in the future.
During my first time at Tiger Kingdom in 2014, what surprised me the most was the employees’ genuine concern and care for these animals. Often when no visitors were around the trainers would stay within the enclosure to play and pet these animals. New toys were made daily for the tigers and the animal caretakers often took personal offence when the visitors would criticise the tigers and their well-being.
Volunteering at Tiger Kingdom
My personal experience as a volunteer
The first friend I made at Tiger Kingdom in 2014 was little Penguin, a two-week cub with very poor vision. She was the only one who survived her litter, but she was too small to be put together with other older cubs.
In the beginning, I’d spend hours sitting in her cage while she slept in my lap or tried to pull at my jeans. She might not have been able to see, but with her accurate hearing and perfect sense of smell, she could still recognise me easily.
There is a certain sound big cats emit when they are being friendly. It is a sort of “Hello, we’re friends” and it sounds like a “BOOF”. We would then “BOOF” right back and then both tiger and human knew that it is safe to approach. This sort of hello is said to each tiger every single morning before the park opened to the public.
As the trainers were teaching me how to handle and approach the tigers, this was my first lesson. Always give each tiger a proper good morning at the start of the day.
From 11:00 I spent almost all my time inside the tiger enclosure with the medium and large tigers. My favorites were the biggest one, and especially a fellow named Sailom (wind).
He had a “I don’t care” kind of swag.
A lot of time was spent accompanying tourists in the enclosures and making sure they were constantly watched. But when I had a moment to myself I’d cuddle up to Sailom, and we’d lie in the burning sun together dozing. And I will forever miss those moments.
My most precious memory from that time was being away from the park for two weeks without seeing my Penguin. During this time she had been moved into the enclosure with the smallest tigers where tourists could meet her. Her vision had still not improved, but she had doubled in size from when I first saw her.
I entered the enclosure and “BOOFED” at her. She came running full force, and threw herself at me in a hug and buried her nose in my neck and hair. She then decided it was playtime, but that’s another story.
Re-visiting Tiger Kingdom in 2017
My first day back at Tiger Kingdom and i was attacked by hugs and a lot of “You forgot Thai?? Why you don’t speak Thai?” It was great seeing familiar faces and stripes that I hadn’t seen for three years. A lot of the same staff was still around, making the same jokes but quite a few new faces had joined the park.
Mong Kon (Micheal) and Eff (Frankie) were still at the park, looking just the same, only bigger. They’re easy to remember. Eff has a spot on his nose and Mong Kon always had a beautiful face and loved the pool. He had a signature posé for his sunbathing in the pool. When I first met them, they were medium sized and now they’re parading around as full grown tigers. They are the giants of Tiger Kingdom now.
During one of the Wildlife Department’s routine visits to Tiger Kingdom I had a chance to join a team going to the New Park, which is not open to the public yet. I met little Vicky and Penguin, except they’re not so little anymore.
The part I had been looking forward to the most was meeting my Sailom. He was still as friendly as ever, with a giant head. He’d gotten a little taller, and a little slimmer since I last saw him. The new diet the nutritionist put him on has done good for him.
Old Dave, the lion was still around as well. I met him too, but he wasn’t as happy to see me… He always only liked Kong, the trainer. And he embarrassed himself by acting like a lovesick puppy when Kong came around. Love makes you do crazy things, whether you have paws or disposable thumbs.
Visiting Tiger Kingdom
How to get there
Most people recommend paying for a songthaew or taxi for a few hours. The price will depend on your starting point and your ability to negotiate the price. In Chiang Mai, the price starts from 200-500 baht and up depending on if you’re sharing the cost with others or going alone. In Phuket you could take a taxi for around 100 baht to Tiger Kingdom from Patong beach (oneway). This was however a few years ago - prices have been increasing lately.
There are also a few alternatives for those on a budget. Here’s the local way of getting to Tiger Kingdom.
Chiang Mai: Yellow songthaews leave from Chang Phueak Bus Terminal every 15 minutes and drops you off at the intersection on the main road. From there it’s approximately 10 minutes by foot. You can’t miss it, there are massive sign posts. Price is 40 baht one way.
For your return, the songtaew stops only along the main road, so you need to cross the road and wait patiently. Don’t forget to ask if they go to Chang Phueak Bus Terminal!
Phuket: I’ve heard that there are blue songthaews that leave from the end of Patong Beach and go to Tiger Kingdom. Price is supposedly 25 baht oneway. This information is not confirmed, please ask in advance!
Prices to enter the tiger and lion enclosures
Giant tiger: 1,300 Baht includes 10 photos on a CD
Big tiger: 700 Baht
Medium tiger: 600 Baht
Small tiger: 600 Baht
Smallest tiger: 1,300 Baht
Lion: 500 Baht
Professional photographer: 299 Baht per enclosure includes 30 photos on a CD
Additional 8 GB USB: 300 Baht
Big OR Medium + Smallest enclosures: 1,800 Baht includes a photo frame
Giant + Medium OR Lion: 1,500 Baht
Big OR Medium + Lion: 1,000 Baht
What to bring:
A hat or cap
A friend (so that you can take pictures for each other - staff is not allowed to help)
What not to bring:
Selfie stick (not allowed in the cage)
High heels (uneven ground)