While fastidiously reading through my Lonely Planet Travel book on China, I soon came across a section dedicated to the little explored far-northeast. Amongst this barren frozen wasteland, its crowning jewel is the city of Harbin.
Known as the Ice City, Harbin has also gained international recognition as the host of the yearly Snow and Ice Festival, a place which produces some of the world’s largest ice sculptures. The city was also home to a Japanese chemical weapon laboratory during the height of the war. Yet, that isn’t what has brought the city such notoriety.
Harbin is also home to the Siberian Tiger Park, a place where the breeding and conservation of Siberian Tigers takes place. At the time, it was a place that grabbed my interest, a particular highlight on my itinerary.
But now, older and hopefully wiser, looking back, have I changed my perspective? Should I have gone at all? Why is it seen by animal rights activists as a cauldron of cruelty and brutality? Let’s learn more about the Siberian Tiger Park.
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Table of Contents
A Bit About Siberian Tigers
Throughout the world, there are six subspecies of tigers. Of those, the majestic Siberian Tiger is the biggest of them all, weighing up to 320kg! Though tragically, they are also one of the rarest, with numbers dwindling.
Where Are Siberian Tigers?
Siberian tigers are well adapted to living in colder climates and typically inhabit temperate forests, taiga, and mountainous regions of Russia’s Far East.
Some smaller populations of Siberian tigers are also known to exist in north-eastern China and potentially along its border regions with North Korea. As of the latest estimate, there are below 40 wild Siberian tigers roaming in China.
Why Are Siberian Tiger Populations Decreasing?
As with all tiger species, the Siberian tiger population is dangerously low due to a combination of factors including habitat loss for agriculture and infrastructure, poaching, and a decline in prey species.
Conflicts can also arise amongst the local Chinese population. Tigers may prey on livestock which inevitably leads to retaliatory killings.
Conservation efforts have been taken to address this decline in the way of habitat conservation, anti-poaching measures, community engagement, and efforts to restore prey populations. However, it’s a complex task and remains ongoing.
Some Hope For The Future Of Siberian Tigers
Fortunately, Siberian tiger numbers have been showing signs of recovery in recent years.
In 2010, the population of Siberian tigers was estimated to be around 450 and might be even higher during the last few years.
The latest estimates from 2019 that the population had grown to approximately 550-600 individuals in the Russian Far East.
Additionally, collaborations between Russia and neighbouring countries like China have facilitated conservation efforts and enhanced transboundary cooperation to protect the species.
Though across the border in China, there’s been a very different conservation effort.
What Is The Siberian Tiger Park?
Located in Harbin, the Siberian Tiger Park is China’s effort to repopulate the region with Siberian Tigers and assist in the overall conservation of the species.
The facility is believed to hold up to 1,000 big cats, making it one of the largest captive breeding centres for Siberian tigers.
The Siberian Tiger Park has also become a well-known tourist attraction, particularly among domestic visitors. It has allowed visitors to observe these magnificent creatures up close.
Noble as the centre may appear, this facility holds much more sadistic features.
What Can You Do At The Siberian Tiger Park?
This isn’t any old zoo or sanctuary; you won’t ever come across a site like this again! There are a few unique activities that might seem appealing to visitors.
The Siberian Tiger Park’s crowning attraction is the admittedly very unique Tiger Safari. Visitors are shuffled onto heavily customised buses equipped will barred windows, and driven around the vast paddocks amongst the free-roaming tigers.
In many ways, it gives the illusion of a serene paradise. It convinces you that if tigers had to be kept captive, this was the way to do it. The tigers look content, well-fed, healthy-looking beasts. Though, it only goes downhill from here.
The Controversial Side To The Siberian Tiger Park
Not only do yet get an opportunity to view the animal from a whole new perspective, but you also get the opportunity to feed them.
Whether on the Tiger Safari bus or walking through the walkways above the tiger paddocks, visitors can feed the captive tigers. Awaiting staff members have buckets cull of an arbitrary strip of meat and metal tongs for you to hand over to the awaiting tigers. Though there are other options on the menu.
The Siberian Tiger Park also allows visitors to feed live animals to the tigers. With a helpful list like in a chain restaurant, animal species are listed next to their prices. Cages filled with live chickens are awaiting their fate – to be dropped down a shaft into the heart of the tiger pit. Or worse, if you pay for a larger creature like a cow or a goat and you’ll be able to watch it be dropped off the back of a truck in the middle of the open paddock.
Other Animal Exhibits
The centre doesn’t only hold Siberian tigers, but it also houses other species such as lions, leopards, and lynx. There have also been ligers (hybrid crosses between lions and tigers) and even the incredibly rare pure white Siberian tigers.
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A Younger Perspective
I, much like many others, am a complete hypocrite. I pride myself as an animal lover that loves the taste of meat, and despite my best intentions, the love of seeing and interacting with animals often clouds my judgement.
Besides, the facility was aiding the conservation of these fascinating creatures. It was a place where you got put into the cage, how can that be bad? Perhaps I just wanted to believe that more than anything.
Deep inside all of us, whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not, we know keeping animals captive is cruel. Yet, we continue to support and allow it in one form or another. Not out of cruelty, but from fascination and the need for convenience.
The Problem Of Animal Cruelty In China
Animal cruelty isn’t as big of a hot topic as it is in the West. Though of course, such a blanket statement doesn’t take into account how pets in China are adored just as much as anywhere in the world. You’re not likely going to find the pet hamster as a side dish one evening.
That being said, there’s definitely a higher occurrence of mistreatment and abuse which has gained quite a sour reputation.
That extends from the inhumane practices of the fur industry with reports of animals being skinned alive, to the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival in Guangxi province where thousands of dogs are brutally slaughtered before being consumed.
Not to mention the rampant tales of animal fighting, the exotic pet trade and the use of animals in traditional medicinal practices, animal rights haven’t quite made their mark in Chinese society.
How The Siberian Tiger Park Is Cruel
The simple fact of keeping a big cat captive aside, neither are the tigers kept in the best conditions.
The facility may be negligent at best and abusive at worst. The facilities’ focus has seemed to have shifted from conservation to more focus on entertainment and tourism, all to the detriment of the animal’s well-being.
Concerns have also been raised about the relatively small enclosures the animals are kept in. Though a small proportion does get a vast open paddock, most of the creatures are trapped within tiny cages to the detriment of the animal’s mental health. That includes pure white Siberian tigers that frustratingly pace backwards and forward in a defiant cry of insanity.
Live animals are fed directly to drooling tigers. Stunned onlookers get the thrill of watching the defenceless creature being torn to shreds before their very eyes. The flimsy argument “they need to learn hunting instincts” simply does not apply, as dumping a cow off the back of a truck or a chicken down a shoot does not teach any creature how to be an apex predator. There’s only one reason that creature is alive and kicking when it’s dropped into that cage – for the pleasure of watching it die.
Many may see it as a necessary evil, a greater good in the cause of Siberian tiger conservation. But the sad reality is, not a single one of these tigers will ever feel true wilderness beneath their feet. These creatures are not capable of adapting to the wilderness. These tigers were bred in captivity and will remain there until their death. In the 23 years since the facility was first established, not a single tiger has ever made it out of those gates.
As detailed in the hit Netflix series Tiger King, cub breeding is the evil practice commonly used by many tiger parks and supposed sanctuaries.
These establishments are able to fund their costly enterprise through tourist visits, but most of all, through cub petting. Cuddle time, photos and being passed from one gleeful tourist to the next are all the cubs are subjected to from one day to the next.
Regardless, people will travel far and wide to spend some time with a baby tiger, and you better believe people with pay however much it costs. Thus, ensuring each spring season comes with a brand new fresh litter is essential.
Once the tigers grow up, that’s when the real issue begins. Suddenly this cash-raking cub has grown into a fully grown liability and another very expensive mouth to feed. And in the vicious cycle that is cub petting – more cubs keep those gates open.
Admittedly, during my first visit to the park, I was completely hoodwinked. The small cages and sadistic feeding aside, it did appear that the extensive plot of land they were free to roam looked sufficient. In the aid of conservation, this had to be one of the best ways to go about it.
Yet, while on the one hand, the facility boasts about its conservative powers, on the other the allow you to partake in its cruelty.
A Modern Perspective
By now you are thinking why would you go to such a place? And you would have a point. People like me put money into this kind of institution so they can continue.
In my heart, I know that keeping a tiger in a cage is cruel yet the excitement of being able to see one up close and feed it with my very own hands becomes too much to resist.
At the start of the pandemic, the entire world was introduced to the masterpiece that was Tiger King. In it, the world finally learned all about the big cat world and the cruelty that comes with it.
Hence, such mindsets and attitudes towards it have shifted dramatically.
Looking back on myself, I should have seen red flags. All I can do is learn from my mistakes.
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Thank you so much for reading The Siberian Tiger Park: A Retrospective of Cruelty! Check out these other helpful articles!