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The New Pin-Up Boys of Tourism

A capricious March, alternating between dry heat and unexpected showers, had us flying to Phuket in search of pristine white sands and a serene, turquoise blue sea. We arrived in Phuket one hot summer morning, on a day that was celebrated as Songkran or New year. What is the best thing to do in Phuket, we asked our Taxi driver. Water sports and Tiger Park, he said succinctly. We were no water sports enthusiasts, so, we decided to visit the Tiger Park instead.

The signboard outside the park, was a nondescript board with a toy tiger drawn on it. The entryway of the park was flanked by a shop selling stuffed tigers of all sizes and a café. From the café, we glimpsed huge wire mesh enclosures, housing tigers. The smaller enclosures had baby tigers and newly born cubs. “You can meet the tigers,” said our guide, handing us a brochure which gave us options to enter any enclosure we chose, at a price. We could meet the cubs or a full-grown adult tiger.

Curious, we paid our entry fee and were ushered into an enclosure with adult tigers. The trainer met us at the gate and escorted us to a magnificent male tiger, lounging near the pool. We were told we could pat him or stand close to him but were not to go near his face. I gingerly patted the tiger and the only acknowledgement I received was a disdainful flick of his tail. The trainer offered to take our pictures as we petted the tiger Then the trainer escorted us to the other tiger in the enclosure, who was enjoying an afternoon siesta. The trainer suggested we lie down next to the tiger and raise his tail like a trophy for a photograph. We declined hurriedly, quite shocked by this suggestion.

After this rather tame encounter, we sat down in the café overlooking the enclosures, for a cup of tea. As we watched, a group of tourists was ushered into the enclosure we had vacated. They wanted a picture with the tiger on a raised platform. The tiger is question was cooling off in the pool and refused to leave his refreshing haven. The trainer would have none of it and hounded him out, by banging a huge wooden stick on the pool embankment. The tiger reluctantly left his cool refuge and climbed the platform. Chattering excitedly, the girls in the group, draped themselves on the tiger’s back and raised his tail like a baton, as their friends’ clicked pictures. The tiger did not like the treatment meted out to him and snarled in protest and anger. He received a hard tap on his nose with a wooden stick that the trainer carried on his person and subsided into silence, posing for the photographs albeit with some disdain. The tourists then moved to the other tiger, who had the look of a sacrificial goat. They lounged on the ground next to the tiger, using his haunches as an armrest, as though he was an inanimate toy and not the King of the Jungle.

I could not watch any longer. I turned away. It saddened me to see these magnificent feline cats being used as pin-up boys of tourism, with their hunting instincts, ferocity and pride trained out of existence.

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