The Tigers that lost their roar

Mudumalai Forest, South India – January 1, 1991

The ancient van clambered noisily up the rutted track. At the top of the incline, it paused as if to gather breath and slowly descended the next slope. The noise of the elderly engine together with the grinding gears and the infernal rattling drove all coherent thought from our heads. There we were, 30 highly optimistic souls on a tiger safari in India hoping to see some wildlife in a contraption that ought to have been retired at the end of World War Two. Any sensible creature would have taken off like a shot over the next hill into the deepest jungle, shaking its head at the folly of humans.

An English family on the seat behind us kept up a running commentary on how they wanted to spot a tiger on their first tiger safari in India. Suri, Kiran, and I, who had lived all our lives on the fringes of the sanctuary without ever spotting a tiger in the wild, sniggered. In fact, we were embarrassed to be taking a tiger safari with a van-load of tourists. The only reason we were there was to give my fiancé, Lata as much of a jungle experience as possible. She had just arrived in Mudumalai. And these tourists were here for a short visit hoping to see a tiger on their very first tiger safari in India! We knew that we would be lucky to see much more than deer and maybe a wild boar or two.

We were crossing the bottom of a dry riverbed in first gear, slowly crawling over the huge rocks that were worn smooth by the rushing water when the river was full. The driver was obviously wary of breaking an axle on his museum piece of a vehicle.

Suddenly from the opposite side, a German tourist shouted, “Tiger”.  30 pairs of eyes turned to where he was pointing—the top of a rather steep nallah—but saw nothing but tall grass and shrub. By the time our van made its noisy smoke-belching way up the incline, no self-respecting tiger would be within a half-a-mile from us. Or so I thought.

Right at the top, our driver slammed on the brakes and wordlessly pointed to the right. Through the light green lemon-grass, an indistinct yellow shape crouched. As we watched with bated breath, it slowly moved and my heart stopped.  Standing up to its full height, a full-grown tiger turned its massive head our way and gave us an unforgettably imperious glare. Baring its fangs, it snarled—a guttural ripping sound that made my hair stand on end. Then, Kiran grabbed my shoulder and pointed to the right of the tiger with barely controlled excitement. There, all but hidden by the blades of grass I saw two pairs of eyes peering through. Cubs! Two of them!

Then like wisps of amber smoke, they silently vanished into the undergrowth. Our first tiger in the wild was actually a tigress with barely weaned cubs to boot. God, what magnificent creatures! Elated and giggling like a bunch of pre-adolescents, we drove back, knowing that we had been incredibly lucky to have had a glimpse of the greatest beast of them all. Going by the cubs, the future of the tiger in India is assured. And lovers of the great cat can look forward to fruitful tiger safaris in India. At least, for the time being.

If my first brush with the Tiger was euphoric, the second was grim.

Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi province, Thailand – November 2009
Not far from the world-famous Bridge Over The River Kwai, lies Thailand’s Tiger Temple, formally known as Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno. Lata (now my wife) and I have been fascinated by the stories of how Budhist Monks have taken in orphaned tiger cubs and have been raising them as pets. Apparently, since 1999, the monks here have taken care of tigers which have been rescued from poachers in the nearby Thai-Burmese border jungle – and have fully grown tigers and tiger cubs living within the temple grounds.
So we find ourselves once again in a van—a thoroughly modern one this time, replete with air-conditioning, music system and very comfortable to boot—on the 2 ½ hour trip from Bangkok to Kanchenaburi. Our guide, Poi is a human dynamo buzzing with energy and keeps us chivvied up with her quips all the way. After strategic halts at the Floating Market, Ratchaburi, and a short stop for lunch we reach the Tiger Temple around 3.00 in the afternoon. Just in time for the tigers to be let out of their cages and visitors to see them from only a few feet away.
Walking in through the gates, conflicting emotions vie for supremacy: excitement and apprehension. After all, these are wild animals and anything could happen. The first thing that strikes us is the feral stench that surrounds the place like a cloak. As we walk towards the viewing area, we see groups of saffron-clad monks with green-shirted attendants and tourists clustered around individual tigers on raised platforms. As we draw closer, we can see the young tigers lying apathetically while the tourists stroke them, grinning inanely at the camera-wielding attendants. Some of them actually pull the tails of the poor beasts without even a token protest from them.
It is only when I get right next to one of them do I get a feeling that something is wrong. The tiger could have been a stuffed toy for all the animation it displays. Its head lolls, eyes unfocused and dull, the entire body slack without any reaction even when the monk roughly moves it to a photogenic position.

This is certainly not the magnificent animal I expect to see… why, it is barely alive… there can be just one explanation, of course—it is doped to its eyeballs.
When we get to the quarry area, the “play area” for the tigers to “frolic”, the evidence of drugging is clear for all to see. The tigers are all chained to the ground in the hot, dry canyon and lie unmoving, dead to the world. The attendants make a big deal of leading gullible tourists to an animal, one at a time, to get their photographs taken (At 1000 Baht a pop). And all the while other attendants manipulate the poor creatures’ limbs like so many pieces of meat. The whole scene looks like a tiger abattoir. This is one of the most disgusting spectacles of reprehensible human behaviour I have had the shame to witness.
The monks will have you believe that the tigers are lethargic because they are nocturnal creatures and laze around during the day! The credulous swallow this without a thought and gush into their blogs about how they were moved by the “wonderful” experience. But thankfully, not everyone is convinced.
A critical report from Care For The Wild International, based on information collected over three years, accuses the temple of mistreating and illegally trafficking in the tigers.
Following this report, several individuals, publications and wildlife organisations have expressed serious concern about this place. In fact, tour operators like Billetkontoret have gone one better. They have cancelled all visits to the tiger temple.
The Rite of Liberating Living Beings is a Buddhist practice of rescuing animals, birds, fish and so forth that are destined for slaughter or that are permanently caged. They are released to a new physical and spiritual life. The practice exemplifies the fundamental Buddhist teaching of compassion for all living beings.
To break the spirit of this magnificent animal with blatant abuse and hide it under the guise of compassion is a heresy of burning-at-the-stake proportions. I, for one, would like the perpetrators to feel the flames—without drugs.