Just over two years ago I got back from my first experience of travelling.

I had the best time. Unexpectedly so, I might add. I went away with little to no expectations and no real clue as to how things would be.

My first stop was Thailand and again, I had no real preconceptions. What I found was glorious weather, the best group of girls (ever), beautiful places, important cultural and historic lessons, delicious food and of course, wildlife.

I had two trips in Thailand, one a tour around key places and the other, a volunteer placement at an Elephant centre based just outside of Surin.

This blog is not about that.

This is about the now infamous tourist attraction, Tiger Temple, which I decided to visit for several reasons;

  • I was naive and actually didn’t know that much about it, except for the fact that a friend of mine had visited some years earlier and recommended it.
  • There was a group of five of us wildlife enthusiasts who decided to go together to share the experience.
  • Although you could have opted out completely, the rest of our group was going to visit a zoo, which we had read negative reviews about online.
After I got home, there was some controversy surrounding this popular tourist attraction, the topic of the ‘Tiger selfie’ came up and prompted animal welfare groups to speak out against such attractions.

I’m not sure if there is only one Tiger Temple or several within the country. Regardless, the point is, I visited one.

And after I got home and learned of the controversy, I defended it.

I was somewhat aware of the controversy surrounding zoos in Asia and other parts of the world. As a group, we had heard that some attractions dope the animals so that they pose for photographs with tourists. We looked out for this, and if I am completely honest, there were a couple of awkward moments when we looked at each other and asked ‘is that one really sleepy because it’s so hot or is it out cold?’. Overall, we agreed: the Tigers looked to be in good condition and after hearing about the state of some of the animals at the zoo, we felt we had made the right choice and were relieved we didn’t see lots of animals suffering unnecessarily. Or so we thought.

But two years on from this trip, there is fresh controversy surrounding Tiger Temple and this time there is nowhere to hide. When we visited, we were told about tigers who were rescued from tiny Bangkok apartments, from drug lords and people who kept them as pets. We believed the tales spun by the monks. Maybe we believed what we chose to. Maybe there was some truth to what they were saying.

The facts can no longer be denied. Bad things have happened at Tiger Temple. Every morning this week I have visited the BBC News website as part of my daily ritual, and every day this week there has been a new story on Tiger Temple revealing ever darker truths.

As I have earlier said, I am not 100% sure that the Tiger Temple being discussed in the news is the same as the one I visited but I’m not sure if that is even relevant anymore. Things have clearly been hidden. And this once again raises questions over animal tourism and how to differentiate between legitimate wildlife projects and those that simply exploit vulnerable animals and over-excited tourists.

I can’t take back the fact that I visited this place, and in some respects contributed to the suffering of animals – something I would NEVER knowingly do, or even want to do. And going forwards, I will strive to visit legitimate, ethical and responsible wildlife/conservation projects.

I fully understand that conservation comes in many shapes and sizes, but ultimately, it has to be about the wildlife. I think more should be done to help legitimate projects be recognised, and those irresponsible tourist traps (such as Tiger Temple) should be closed.

I know that Intrepid – FYI they aren’t asking me to feature them – have many ethical policies in place to protect wildlife, nature, the environment and local people. For instance they do not support projects where people ride elephants.

As the world becomes increasingly smaller (accessible), and more of us are travelling far and wide, responsible travel including (but not limited to) animal tourism and environmentally responsible initiatives have to be taken seriously.

I’ve learnt many valuable lessons from this recent controversy, but is it enough? Travellers have to come together, to educate others, to stop history from continually repeating itself. I just hope that all of the Tigers rescued in Thailand go on to have a more natural life. Maybe one day they’ll even be free. Now that the national press has seen this, I hope the Thai authorities prosecute those responsible and prevent anything like this from happening again.

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