Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rainbows in Madikwe; Monks and Tigers in Thailand

Mosetlha Bush Camp: Spring Bush Telegraph - October 2007

Fifty five millimetres since the end of September has made the rains not only early, but really good - the bush is smiling broadly. The rainbow we saw the other day was the highlight of the afternoon drive (the lions, elephant, rhino and 200+ buffalo at a waterhole paled into insignificance) … an entire double rainbow stretched against a charcoal sky arching over the bright green bushveld, we could see each of the seven colours distinctly.

It was perfection … brought a tear to my eye! You probably won’t believe this (we couldn’t) but we’ve had another kudu chased into the lapa by the wild dogs. This is the third time in four years – and it’s a different pack each time so it’s not as if it’s learned behavior.

They cornered her and darted in and out of the lapa taking chunks off her. All a bit traumatic (for us I mean). We eventually dragged the kudu out with a vehicle to make it easier for the dogs to have their meal and for the guests to watch it all - and to prevent even more blood from splashing onto our (freshly reupholstered since the last time when the kudu ran over the couch) furniture.

Talking of wild dogs, a pack of eight is being released into the reserve today – they have been bonding with the new females who were brought in from Shamwari about a month ago. So there are now two packs in Madikwe, the new one and another pack of eight with their 10 pups. In addition to the dogs, we’ve also had a herd of buffalo in the Camp – there is a little pan near the Camp which has filled up with all the rain, this probably attracted the buffalo to our area, they are usually a lot more shy and steer clear of us; we can also hear the elephants trumpeting and splashing there!

We have seen a young female leopard in the Camp! She is clearly resident in the area and we see her drinking at our little bird bath, see the tracks (hers and a large male’s) all over the place and hear them calling at night. And I watched a very large bull elephant go down on his front knees (I guess that would make them his elbows?) to fit underneath the electrified 6 foot high elephant wire so that he could access a mineral block he obviously fancied.

He used his trunk to coax it towards him, scooped it up and dragged it out to his side of the wire. He then picked it up using a tusk and his trunk – so it was perched against his face and he didn’t know what to do with it! I heard him dropping it (with a great thud reverberating through the reserve) repeatedly – obviously trying to break it up into bite size chunks – for about four hours after that! For those of you who knew I was going to the Tiger Temple in Thailand for a six week jaunt, my report of how it went follows.

I literally ran away from the Temple with one of the other volunteers (we escaped under cover of darkness, in a stealth vehicle with darkened windows – it was a luminous pink taxi actually, but this is better for the story!) and we spent a week in Bangkok in the backpackers area of Khao San Road. Had a jol, did all the touristy things and came home four weeks before I should’ve done.

As I’m owed so much leave (hah!) and it’s my birthday on the 6th, I’m treating myself to a trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda for the first 10 days in November – I hope I will be able to provide more positive feedback from that (with no need to mention war, terrorism or the Ebola virus!)

Look forward to seeing you again soon
Best bush regards
The Mosetlha Team

This is my report on my (brief) stay at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi in Thailand:

“The Abbot, Phra Acharn Chan, kindly welcomed the animals. And so the monks ended up looking after the orphaned cubs. None of them had any training in how to handle tigers. They had to learn on the job. The monastery did its duty. It became a sanctuary and it upholds the sanctity of compassion and kindness to all living creatures.”

I applied to volunteer at the Tiger Temple because I wanted to be a part of the promised “tigers roaming free with Buddhist monks” experience – having an interest in both wild animals (especially the big cats, of which tigers are really the only species I don’t have access to in SA) and Buddhism.

Although I understood that there was probably an element of “marketing speak” due to the fund raising slant in the promotion of the Temple and the mysticism of the whole experience, I thought that, due to my research on the Temple website and other pages and blogs, my expectations were realistic in terms of how these animals lived and were treated.

The animal cruelty and abuse at the Temple was blatant and obvious to me from the minute I arrived. (The first animal I came across was at the Volunteer’s House, a very distressed young female cat who was engorged and in agony with too much milk. Her five 2 week old kittens had been removed from her by Temple staff and – we were told - taken to a “Cat Temple”.

I was surprised and upset to come across an animal in such distress as this was not how I would imagine a sanctuary would treat any animal). I arrived mid-morning and on my first day one of the other volunteers who’d been there for a couple of weeks took me around to show me the captive animals. (There is also a large number of farm type animals – goats, cows, horses, chickens - and water buffalo, deer, wild boar and peacocks roaming around the Temple grounds.)

The first cage I came across was a large “chicken wire” cage under a tree with a hawk in it. The bird apparently had a broken wing. It is never released from the cage, which is strewn with rubbish (plastic wrappers and spoons) with flies all over it. Then there was a row of concrete cages with single adult tigers, one with the baby tigers, and at the end of the row (with a large generator placed in front of it so one couldn’t really see what was in this dark, dingy dungeon) a leopard who has, apparently, not been let out of the cage since she arrived there 8 years ago.

My next visit was to a large, double sized concrete cage almost out of view of all the other cages, where they keep two very young (I would estimate them to be about 6 months old) lion cubs (male and female). The cage is bare but for a concrete bowl of water. There is nowhere for them to shelter or hide (they are clearly terrified of humans) and certainly nothing for them to play with – no tyres or branches or any sort of toys. We then saw all the other tigers – either on their own or with two in a cage. Some of the tigers are never released from their concrete cages.

But others, on average 8 tigers a day (usually the same better behaved and better looking tigers – not the stroppy ones or those with scars or bloody eyes) are taken into the Canyon to be photographed with tourists. This “outing” liberates them from their cages for a 10 minute walk on stony gravel to the Canyon, three hours chained by the neck to a ring in the blazing sun, and a 10 minute walk back “home” to their cages. On their way to and from the canyon the tigers are encouraged to move by being lifted by the base of the tail, shoved and punched.

One “tiger girl” would always walk next to the tiger with a garden hoe in her hand, this she waved in front of the tiger’s face or banged on the ground next to it whenever it slowed down or stopped. (The threat was implicit, but the tiger was motivated to move whenever it saw that hoe.) Whilst in the Canyon, the tigers are disciplined with Tiger Balm being rubbed onto their faces, tiger urine being sprayed into their mouths and (surreptitiously, but in full view of tourists) being punched quickly on the face and head. As to whether the animals are drugged or not, I cannot be sure. (Although sedation would surely be the kindest way of helping them get through those long hot hours in the canyon.) The argument against drugging is the expense and, I believe, the difficulty of dosage (meticulously worked out amount of drug to body weight) – although local herbs mixed in with their boiled chicken could possibly work.

(Some of them were completely unresponsive all the time, even when we visited their cages in the early mornings or in the evenings, and this could possibly imply properly prescribed drugs.) In the Canyon the volunteers are there essentially for crowd control. I felt ashamed at being apparently complicit in the running of this circus - which is really no more than a money making scam where tourists are required to “donate” B300 to come into a Buddhist Temple (illegal to charge, by the way), and another B1000 for a ‘special’ photo with a tigers head placed in your lap.

This place is operated along the lines of a very badly run zoo with no money - not an animal sanctuary which receives all this money (work it out, an average of 400 people a day – and that’s on a slow day – with, say, very conservatively 50 people paying for photos) from tourists. Much of the money received over the years since the Animal Planet programme has been promoting it (since about 2003, I think) appears to have been (very recently, as in it has just started being built) spent on building a "Buddhist Park Project" which will essentially be an area to accommodate the followers of the Abbot's Teacher when he comes to visit the Temple!

The Tiger Island (“for their freedom and return to the forest”) which is apparently the reason we all throw money at the Temple is not yet complete, but seems to be nothing more that an area for tiger cages with a moat built around it so tourists can't actually get at them and see how they live – they will still operate the Canyon Photo Circus and, as they will still be hand reared, there is no plan to release tigers back into the wild (despite what it says on their website: “Grown cubs are to eventually be sent to forest areas, monitored and prepared for readiness prior to their release back to the forest.”)

Although we could wander around the cages at any time and watch the workers with the tigers, volunteers were now prevented from ever actually being with the tigers (no cleaning of cages, no bathing of babies) and I was only ever really in the same position as the tourists and never able to see how the staff treated the animals when there were no tourists watching them – but I feel that the way the tigers cringed away from chains, lengths of hose pipe, the garden hoe and some of the male staff members, that there was certainly discipline metered out behind ‘closed doors’.

When we did wander around the grounds – three female volunteers – visiting the cages and photographing the animals, we were watched at all times by the monks and senior staff who communicated on two way radios with one another.

Some odd things happened with the animals – we came across wild boars being captured by staff and the cages being loaded onto the back of a truck: we were told that they were being taken to be released at a National Park. Also, four adult tigers literally disappeared from their cages and the temple grounds overnight over a three week period. No explanation was given as to what had happened to them. Coincidentally, the four new cubs have been given the exact same names as those who have disappeared.

In the morning the baby tigers are brought to the temple where we have breakfast and are allowed to roam around with the monks, staff and volunteers. Every time a cub came anywhere near one of the volunteers, a staff member would yank it away, the babies (four of them are really little, 2 months old and one quite boisterous 5 month old – he was tied to a pillar) were pulled around by one leg or held back by the tail, slapped so they skidded across the wooden floor boards, thrown up into the air, their faces held and noses punched, pinched and flicked, they were continuously mauled, teased and tormented.

I have to admit that I couldn’t stand it for very long and stay lasted a mere 4 days! There is a flagrant lack of respect and compassion and certainly no love for these tigers. And this lack of feeling clearly gets worse as the animals get older and bigger and stronger.

Essentially, the animal welfare laws in South East Asia are not stringent enough to close down this establishment due to the cruelty and abuse that is metered out there (along with the illegal breeding - one tigress is kept with the sole purpose of producing cubs - which are removed from her almost immediately after birth and reared by humans). All we can do in the short term is spread the word to stop tourists from supporting this place.

1 comment:

fastfist99 said...

A very well written report on the temple. If only this was enough but after speaking to a kiwi mum whose daughter had just been to he temple and had photos, I asked how the daughter liked her visit. My friend said she loved it. I asked if she knew about the tabuse before going to the temple. The mothers replied' her daughter did know bt didn't care because it was such a great experince to be up and close to the tigers. Most people who go do so for the photo opportunity and care little for animals welfare.

Fiona Patchett

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