To begin, I’ll state the obvious: Thailand has absolutely amazing wildlife. It’s lush jungles contain something like 10% of the world’s biodiversity (do not quote me on that). Tourists are understandably interested in experiencing those especially exotic animals, like tigers and elephants, that they would never be able to see back home. And it’s equally understandable that Thai people would want to profit off of the local environment. But some programs are more successful than others. I was fortunate enough to visit both tigers and elephants while in Chiang Mai, and they were markedly different experiences.
At Tiger Kingdom, I was repeatedly asked to lean down and cuddle a 400-pound tiger. I was reluctant. Sure, I was nervous around the enormous animal, (his paw alone was the size of a dinner plate), but it also felt strangely disrespectful. Tigers were, and still are, some of the most feared animals in the world. Now tourists are encouraged to treat the domesticated versions (all the tigers were born and bred in captivity) like overlarge house cats. Minders prowled the cages with thin sticks in their hands, and whenever the tigers became too frisky, they received short whacks on their hindquarters. These could not have actually hurt the animals, they were probably analogous to annoying buzzing insects. Still, it was a slightly unsettling experience. The fear was supposed to be gone.
Is that good or bad? There is obviously no need to be afraid of tigers anymore, as wild tiger attacks are extremely rare.
But I think something is lost by having people experience tigers this way. We were not encouraged to be in awe of their amazing natural abilities, nor were we taught about their lifestyles or their intelligence. We were told to take goofy pictures which we could then tag on social media (hashtag tiger kingdom!). I’m guilty of doing that too, I posted an Instagram of myself with a baby tiger. I think these kinds of places rob the tigers of their essential being. I realize that it could be far worse for them in the wild-poaching and habitat destruction are huge issues for tigers, but I think there must be a better, more natural way. Just because we can be in a cage with an apex predator doesn’t we should.
I also had the wonderful opportunity to spend the day with a small herd of elephants.
We were given bags full of bananas and we set off into the jungle with four female elephants. For their incredible size, the elephants were remarkably gentle. However, they made it very clear that they were only participating in the hike for the bags of bananas.
We also observed another herd made up of four adult females and one child. We watched them eat and bathe; it was a unique experience to see how elephants live.Although the elephant park isn’t perfect, they are saving elephants from far worse lives; working in logging camps in Burma, or performing on the streets of Chiang Mai or Bangkok. I really respected their mission and I highly recommend the experience (check it out!)
Chiang Mai is an incredible place, and I highly recommend visiting! Just be careful, and make sure to book all animal-related tours through a reputable company 🙂