The problems with Thailand's tiger tourism trade

The problems with Thailand's tiger tourism trade

Questionable zoos and threatened habitats mean getting up close to these majestic beasts is no easy -- or morally acceptable -- feat

So you want to come to Thailand and see tigers?

You could of course visit one of the many tiger zoos, or the tiger temple in Kanchanaburi, where monks have trained the animals to lay still while tourists pose for photos with them.

The problem is that there are multiple reports of alleged animal mistreatment and trafficking connected to some of these places.

If the idea of docile caged tigers forced to pose for photos all day doesn't bother you, perhaps that many zoos are suspected of selling tiger meat out the back door to be butchered for the exotic wildlife trade will.

Spending your money at one of these places will only perpetuate these problems.

So what about seeing them in their natural habitat?

In 2010, Thailand came up with a plan to promote tiger eco-tourism.Natural Resources and Environment minister at that time, Suwit Khunkitti, estimated there were only 200-250 of the big cats left in Thailand.

But despite the government's 2010 initiative, there aren't any tiger tourism programs like those in India. Even worse, it would seem the government has taken two steps back.

Proposed dam to wipe out tiger habitat

Kanchanaburi's controversial "Tiger Temple" attracts tourists who want to get up close to the endangered cats. In addition to long-standing problems like poaching and deforestation, another threat has emerged for these majestic beasts. The Thai government recently approved construction of a massive dam within Mae Wong National Park in western Thailand, an important tiger habitat.

The dam will flood 18 square kilometers of the park -- protected since 1961 under the National Park Act -- wiping out prime areas where tigers have made fragile gains, while allowing poachers easier access by boat.

It will also endanger the Huay Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary to the south,“internationally recognized as one of the very few places on Earth that can protect functioning populations of wild tigers,” said Anak Pattanavibool, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Thailand Program, in an op-ed in the Bangkok Post.

Meanwhile, there were reports last year of a surprising resurgence of tigers in Thailand's Eastern Forest Complex near the border with Cambodia.

Rangers working with conservation organization Freeland captured many shots of tigers with heat- and motion-triggered cameras in the deep jungle there.

"This place was supposed to be devoid of tigers," Tim Redford from Freeland told The Guardian last year.

"But we did a course here and were surprised to find signs of tigers. The more we looked, the more we found. That led me to believe the forest must have tigers throughout and there is a big gap in our knowledge of where they live."

'They don't like humans'

Even if there are more tigers in Thailand than previously thought, getting up close to them is no easy feat.

“There's no tiger tourism in Thailand except for the poor critters in the Tiger Temple and in sundry tiger farms,” said Nirmal Ghosh, Thailand correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times and a trustee at tiger conservation group the Corbett Foundation.

There's also the question of whether going out to see tigers in the wild is ethical, though Ghosh said that tours done the right way could work.

“Whether tiger tourism is ecologically friendly depends on how it is handled," he said.

"I think a small, low-impact specialized experience under expert guides would be good and have some chance even of success. But even then, the chance of seeing one would be so rare that it would probably kill off any tourism venture that focused solely on tigers. The venture would therefore have to concentrate on other wildlife to survive.”

More on CNNGo: 15 trips for animal lovers

What about going it alone, putting on your trusty hiking boots and heading out into the national parks to go tiger spotting? Good luck with that one.

Bruce Kekule, Southeast Asia's preeminent wildlife photographer, waited 15 years before getting his first photo of a tiger.

“They stay away,” he said. “The hear you first, they smell you first, and they see you first. And they don't like humans.”

Peter Cutter, manager of the Landscape Conservation Program at the World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) Thailand office, said research has shown that there are at least 15 distinct tigers in a remote national park in Eastern Thailand, but seeing one is tough.

“Tigers patrol the edge of their home range for five days to two weeks, so they're never in the same place in the forest," said Cutter, who has been working in Thailand for decades but only seen a tiger on three separate occasions. "It makes being in the same proximity tricky.”

Cutter ran a wildlife tourism operation in Thailand back in the 1990s but ultimately couldn't make it work financially. He still believes there could be a market for it.

“I think it would have to be very high-end, much higher than your average backpacker day tourist. But I think there's still a niche for wildlife and tiger tourism in Thailand.”

Thailand's other wildlife

Though spotting a wild tiger in Thailand is next to impossible, experts say getting close to a gibbon in Khao Yai National Park is relatively easy.

Besides tigers, there are plenty of other wildlife viewing options in Thailand.

In Prachuap Khiri Khan province, there are wild fishing cats. These relatively small (weighing no more than 15 kilos) nocturnal animals mainly hang out in the wetlands of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park. If you're very low-impact -- and lucky -- spotting one is not impossible.

Contact the Fishing Cat Research and Conservation Project first for tips and the latest on the endangered cat's status.

Better yet is a wildlife spotting adventure in Khao Yai National Park, said Cutter, which is the best place in Thailand to see mammals like elephants, gibbons, macaques, barking deer and the buffalo-like gaur.

“The gibbons in Khao Yai have been research suspects for so long that they are really unafraid of humans, so it's a great place to get close to them,” said Cutter.

And Thailand has amazing offerings for birders. Assorted bitterns, herons, egrets, storks, hornbills and ibises can be found in the country's wetlands.

The great hornbill, while rare, can be found in certain areas including Khao Yai. White-bellied sea eagles are common in the Andaman Sea, and on islands like Koh Phi Phi.

And though spotting a tiger in the wild is a long shot, the next best thing you can do to help the striped cat is make a donation to a reputable NGO. Try Freeland, WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society, all of which have operations in Thailand.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Byron Perry.

Byron Perry is the founder of local news and reviews city website Coconuts Bangkok.

Read more about Byron Perry