Amanda Mustard Uncovers the Systemic Failing of Thailand’s Tiger Zoos for the New York Times

Jan 30, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

In the summer of 2016, the Thai government invaded a Buddhist-themed zoo 100 miles west of Bangkok called Tiger Temple. Though operating under the guise of solely taking sick and injured tigers into their care, nursing them back to health, and charging tourists to take pictures with them, the monks who ran the zoo — led by abbot Pra Acharn Phoosit Khantitharo — were accused of also being part of a lucrative trafficking ring. When the raid was complete, authorities had found and removed more than 1,600 illegal items, 60 dead cubs, and 147 live tigers.

Post raid
A tiger gets removed from Tiger Temple during a 2016 raid by the Thai government.

If that were the end of the story, it would still be a tragedy, but one in which justice would be in the process of being served. Instead, what’s happened is but an exacerbation of a deeply troubling issue — and a realization that fundamental changes must take place for the problem to be solved. Amanda Mustard, a photographer based in Southeast Asia, has covered this story for the New York Times and other publications since 2015. She's made it her goal to properly report the facts at hand, lest they get shoved aside amidst a tornado of understandable yet unfocused rage.

I started covering the Tiger Temple about a year before it was shut down. During the course of that coverage, it became clear how emotionally charged this topic was and how much nuance was being overlooked in terms of what was actually best for the tigers’ welfare. As someone who has a strong adherence to journalistic ethics, I was shocked to see how misreported the story was.

Monk media
A Tiger Temple monk answers questions from the media during the 2016 raid.

Last fall, Amanda and writer Richard Paddock reported the death of 86 of the 147 living tigers seized by Thai officials three years prior. The tigers, crammed into small cages and thus vulnerable to the spread of contagious diseases, had died in government care. Worse yet, not a single monk involved with the Tiger Temple’s misdeeds had been prosecuted. Negligence on all sides, combined with tourists’ ever-growing demands to interact with these big, beautiful cats, has only aggravated the situation.   

There were some really ugly things happening behind the scenes politically and amongst animal rights groups. Ultimately, the tigers suffered as all sides pushed and pulled.

Since Amanda knows this story as well as anyone, she’s the perfect person to tell it objectively. A week after the New York Times ran the story about the 86 tigers dying in government care, the paper published another piece — this one detailing the systemic failures of an entire country in caring for tigers in captivity.

Online tear

I had pitched this story to the NYT after covering the Tiger Temple story for them in previous years. My editor, Mikko, trusted me with the creative direction, for which I was so grateful. I visited eight tiger tourism locations during this project, some multiple times.

Cropped tear

I did a ton of research and worked with many experts and animal welfare folks to fully understand where our concerns belonged. I also made sure to curb any assumptions in order to accurately depict the situation.

What the Bangkok-residing photojournalist discovered was that the previously-covered Tiger Temple and the Sriracha Tiger Zoo, the tourism spot highlighted in the Times’ most recent exposé, were far from the only locations that simply did not care for their tigers properly.

It quickly became clear how many other zoos were operating with just as poor, if not worse, welfare standards as [Tiger Temple] — albeit legally. Most legally-operating zoos in Thailand [like Sriracha] have subpar standards. 

Dreadful
A tiger in its cage at Sriracha Tiger Zoo.

So, while the public outrage at the Tiger Temple was justified, it almost acted as a scapegoat for the greater problem of tiger welfare in the country. Learning that the most egregious zoos I witnessed were actually violating no law in Thailand made it clear to me that increased awareness is so critical. I wanted the work to show the larger context. 

Part of that awareness is understanding that just because the government shuts down one illegal operation doesn’t mean the problem is solved. On the contrary, it's just the tip of the iceberg. As we've learned, things only went downhill from the Tiger Temple raid. Dishearteningly, this did not catch Amanda — or anyone else in the know — off guard.   

I was not surprised for a second when I found out that 86 of the Temple cats had died in government facilities. Those of us following the story closely from the start knew that it was the wrong decision to move the tigers to a location that was not equipped to care for them. We knew that a significant number would die but, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting it to be that high. It was even worse than I imagined. 

Worse than you can imagine
Two of the 60 dead tiger cubs found during the 2016 raid of the Tiger Temple.

While the Tiger Temple needed serious changes from top to bottom, it still had more space and activities for the tigers than most zoos in Thailand. Amanda posits that an outside party should have stepped in and applied its expertise to ensure the tigers were looked after properly.  

The ideal scenario would have been for the Temple to be taken over and managed by an external body — such as an international welfare group — skilled enough to keep those tigers healthy. There was far more space and enrichment at the Temple than most zoos I’ve seen, and yet they were moved hastily to barren cages a fraction of the size where diseases spread easily.

There’s one final group of people we've yet to discuss. You know, the one that keeps this whole thing going: tourists. Approximately 20 percent of Thailand’s 2019 GDP came from the tourism sector, a number that's expected to rise to 30 percent by 2030. Many of these visitors frequent the country’s zoos in the hopes of petting, feeding, and posing with tigers. In fact, before being shut down, the Tiger Temple raked in about $5.7 million a year primarily off the back of tourist-tiger interactions.

Hmm
A tourist gets a picture with a tiger cub at Sriracha Tiger Zoo.

The majority of the zoo visitors I’ve observed genuinely don’t seem concerned with what’s happening around them. Folks are so eager to get their selfie with a tiger, and there’s a huge disconnect with the true cost of that photo. It’s absolutely what’s driving the entire industry, which continues to grow rapidly to meet the demand.

And when you couple that demand with the fact that that animal abuse laws in Thailand are woefully lax, you begin to understand why tourists can do things like shoot pellet guns into tiger cages. The goal is to hit targets that release food for the cats. The chilling reality is that patrons aren’t impeded from shooting directly at the tigers.

Too real

There’s nothing stopping someone from shooting the tigers. Some had tiny marks on their skin that could have been from the pellets. That situation is a pretty straightforward welfare concern, which is what I was looking to document with the project.

Things are so dire that some people, like Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand founder Edwin Wiek, are calling for the sterilization of captive tigers, many of whom are inbred to make sure there are enough cats to meet the tourists’ mushrooming photo op demands. Wiek believes this would curtail many of the issues inherent to Thailand’s tiger zoos.

“When you cannot enforce the laws you have in place or people are so corrupt,” Wiek laments, “this is probably the only way to stop the breeding of these tigers.”

Amanda, however, points to places like India as an example of how to remedy the situation while still giving people a chance to see and learn about tigers. But the only way that happens is if money takes a backseat to the cats themselves on the priority list.

There are models of animal tourism that can be hands-off and educational while still providing critical funding for conservation and caretaking. Take a look at India, for example: while there’s much debate, they have generally made it much more difficult to capitalize on tigers for tourist purposes. But what’s missing in Thailand is a core value that welfare and conservation should come first. It’s all financially driven and has become wildly lucrative.

As with most layered, systemic problems, everyone is culpable to some extent. The other side of that harsh axiom is that each one of us can play a part, however small, in making things right. Amanda has no shortage of tips for tourists who want to interact with animals while on vacation. 

If you do want to see animals when you’re traveling, do your homework and find reserves and sanctuaries that are airtight in their ethics and approach. Leave negative reviews on TripAdvisor for unethical animal venues. Discourage and educate your friends and family that share animal tourism photos.

Everyone's involved
A family gets a picture with a tiger at Sriracha Tiger Zoo.

While we absolutely need governments to strengthen animal protection and welfare from the top down, we can all do our part to shift the attitude toward how we respect and relate to animals. If there’s no demand for petting and selfies, the industry will adjust accordingly.

It’s not as easy to delve into the nuances of such a heavy topic as it is to fire off a tweet or two about how horrifying the situation has become. But aggregated rage, no matter how ill-defined, can have a legitimate effect on how decision makers act. That’s why Amanda’s work is so crucial and why we must make it a point to know how deep this story goes in order to act accordingly. Otherwise, another tragedy like the one at the Tiger Temple is inevitable.

I want to emphasize how important facts and situational accuracy are when it comes to the welfare of animals. It’s a wildly emotive topic and misinformation spreads like wildfire on the internet, which creates actual pressure on decisions made. There are definitely problems, but in the animals’ best interest, we need to make sure we’re being diligent in what the real issues are that need addressing rather than convoluted hearsay. The truth matters.

Credits:

Writer: Richard C. Paddock
Photo Editor: Mikko Takkunen
Producers: Navaon Siradapuvadol, Ryn Jirenuwat

Check out more of Amanda's work at amandamustard.com.

Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page!