Last week millions tuned in to watch the BBC's Tigers About the House, featuring British born Giles Clark, a zoo keeper from Australia Zoo in Queensland. Mass 'awws', 'ooohs' and smiles filled the nation as tiger cubs Spot and Stripe playfully and rather adorably fed from the hands of their carer at home.
First up, the time, energy and compassion that Giles put into raising these cubs is beyond reproach. If only all the animals of the world could have such an advocate. Also, no-one wants to knock a feel good story involving tigers, or indeed Australia Zoo, set up by the parents of famous keeper and 'crocodile hunter' Steve Irwin. But, and sorry there is a but, those awws and ooohs do need to be put in context because tiger conservation is so much more than playing with cute cubs.
Much was made during the programme of the fact that these cubs were at the centre of the zoo's programme to help endangered tigers. To be fair, it was made clear that Spot and Stripe themselves wouldn't be released into the wild, so their contribution to the conservation of wild tigers would be by helping the zoo raise money, which would then go into tiger protection.
Zoos - the Tough Questions
Different people and different animal organisations have differing opinions on the topic of zoos and captive animals. For the record, ours at Care for the Wild International (a charity that funds numerous tiger protection and conservation projects in Thailand, India and Cambodia, and campaigns against tiger exploitation in tourism) is that one day we'd like to see an end to all wild animals in captivity.
However, we realise that while a desire and a need still exists for animals in captivity, we need to focus on reducing animal exploitation, increasing regulation of zoos and attractions, and ensuring that all such attractions stringently meet the international guidelines of supporting education and conservation. Australia Zoo is, I've no doubt, beyond reproach on these issues, but still the programme provoked some tough questions.
First, I guess what the cuteness factor of Tigers About the House skips is the fact that there are plenty of tigers in captivity worldwide. In fact, it's widely quoted that there are more tigers in captivity in the US alone than there are in the wild. Best estimates suggest that just 3200 tigers remain in the wild, and that number faces yet more decline due to the insatiable appetite from sections of the population in China and Asia who crave tiger (and lion) body parts for 'medicinal' tonics and status within society.
So that means that in the US alone there are well over 3000 tigers in cages, many of which will be as 'exotic' pets. We need to be careful that, however unintentionally, programmes like this do not encourage or increase the belief that these animals are suitable for 'ownership'. They are not - they are magnificent wild animals.
Up Close and Personal
The hand rearing that we witnessed on Tigers About the House, though enchanting, must also be taken in context. Removing the cubs from their mother so early was justified by statements that many cubs die, and also that the cubs needed to be 'socialised' early so they would cope better with the environment in which they would be placed, ie as a tourist attraction interacting with humans on a regular basis.
The first of these statements may well be true, I haven't got the stats to hand; and certainly, without Giles' intervention at birth, Spot may not have lasted more than a few hours.
But in terms of the second point, it gets tricky. As the programme pointed out, these tiger cubs can never ever be released back into the wild. So does their use as a fundraising machine justify the zoo's actions? Secondly, did these cubs need to be separated from their mum so early? The simple truth is that they can't ever be tamed. Testament to that is the story about Australia Zoo keeper Dave Styles, who in November (whilst the BBC crew were on site), was severely mauled during a tiger show at the zoo by one of the previously 'socialised' tigers. He spent 10 days in intensive care, but the documentary didn't mention that.
Conservation, or Tourist Trap?
The fact is that these cubs weren't rescued after having been orphaned by poachers (unless there are some wild tigers knocking about the Australian bush that no one knows about), so how can a tourist or animal lover recognise a clear distinction between a 'conservation focused' zoo and a tourist trap?
There are numerous other attractions that use the tiger's combination of majestic status, stunning beauty and cuteness (particularly when young) as a hook to generate income under the mask of conservation. The concern is, whilst entertaining and skipping the detail of the real consequences of playing with tigers, this show is glamourising the unnecessary human interaction between man and tiger and will likely further encourage people to visit places that prey on animal loving tourists like us.
One such place is Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, which has received masses of criticism for the way it treats its tigers. You can read all about it here, but the summary is that the tigers are kept in concrete cages when they are not being used for tourist photos, and none have ever been released, but the Temple markets itself as a centre for conservation.
I wouldn't be surprised if the Australia Zoo tiger team, along with a host of other conservation and animal charities, condemn the Tiger Temple for what it is. But how does a tourist distinguish between the photo-opportunity with a tiger offered at Tiger Temple, and the photo-opportunity with a tiger offered at Australia Zoo? The walk-with-a-tiger experience at Tiger Temple, and the walk-with-a-tiger experience at Australia Zoo? The difference perhaps lies in the treatment of the tigers, and the ultimate destination of the money - but that message is a tricky one to explain. Maybe this also explains why so many Australians can be found visiting or volunteering at the Tiger Temple?
The Tiger Show offered by Australia Zoo also raises questions. As part of our RIGHT-tourism.org campaign, we are encouraging tourists to avoid 'shows' where animals are made to perform unnatural behaviours - think elephant on a bicycle or orang-utan boxing. This Tiger Show doesn't fit into that category if it emphasises natural behaviours, and as long as harsh training methods aren't used to 'encourage' the animals to perform. The zoo may also claim it adds enrichment for the animals. That is all good, but you are only enriching it because they are not in the wild where enrichment comes for free.
Time to Get Off the Sofa?
So to summarise. Good on Giles Clark and Australia Zoo for caring about tigers. Good on the $1.5m (AUD) that the zoo claims to have given to tiger conservation over 10 years, and good on the BBC for in their own way using their programming to educate people about the plight of our magnificent tigers.
The truth is that there is a place for ex-situ conservation (that's where animals are managed outside of their natural environment), but under no circumstances should we confuse this with in-situ, which as the name suggests is conservation within the animal's natural range. If you breed a tiger into captivity it will almost with absolute certainty live out its life in captivity.
So if we as a responsible audience really want to help tigers survive in the wild we need to get off the sofa and start donating to charities like Care for the Wild, or any others that take your fancy, because breeding into captivity isn't going to stop Spot and Stripe's wild cousins from being decimated to extinction in the wild in our lifetime.
You can learn more about our tiger projects and our undercover Tiger Temple reports at www.careforthewild.com