By Nayara Batschke
Bangkok, Aug 22 (EFE).- Months after the zoo where they lived closed due to Covid-19, 11 tigers gained a new life in a sanctuary in Thailand, after a complex and risky operation that involved one of the largest big cat rescues in the nation’s history.
The journey of the animals, which also include two bears, began in late 2021, when the zoo where they lived, on the tourist island of Phuket, declared bankruptcy and stopped operating due to the lack of tourists because of the pandemic.
“The zoo went bankrupt, there was no food to feed the tigers and the bears any longer and they were looking for an option to solve this problem and they came to us,” said Edwin Wiek, founder and director of the Wildlife Friends Foundation, in an interview with EFE.
The NGO, the largest wildlife rescue center in Indochina, devised a complicated roadmap to free the animals, who were left behind overnight and spent several months without proper care, malnourished and, in some cases, sick.
“They were (locked) in small cages, some of the larger cages were rotting away, the rusty falling apart, so they were kept in tiny cages for almost two years during the Covid-19 crisis. And also there was little budget for food, so many of them were given the minimum amount of food really to survive,” said Wiek, adding that these felines need about five kilos of meat per day to live properly.
The rescue operation involved the participation of 20 people and lasted several months due to its high level of complexity. Between February and May, the animals collected almost a thousand kilometers inside a truck, where a team monitored their health conditions “every five or 10 minutes.”
“You don’t want them to die or get sick or injure them from too much medication from the anesthesia. It is a very risky operation with that number so we decided to do it in three turns, taking three or four tigers at the time,” the director said.
After a long period of medical treatment, physiotherapy and quarantine, the tigers and bears, aged between two and 19, are finally healthy and can enjoy a life “as close as possible” to what they would find in their natural habitat.
“When you look now you see they have large enclosures, they are running around, playing behind us. You see the two young ones having a lot of fun, they run around, they climb in the trees, in their sleeping area, they go swimming in their palms. For them it is of course a completely new life,” said Wiek.
The new residents join about 850 other animals, including 24 elephants, 40 bears and dozens of primates, who live in this sanctuary, which has been operating for 21 years and is located in the province of Phetchaburi, about 200 kilometers from Bangkok.
In its more than 86 hectares – about 11 times the size of Buckingham Palace – the Foundation also manages a veterinary hospital and a rehabilitation center, since the goal is “to return to nature as many animals as possible.”
“When we get a new patient, the animal comes and we check the body, run blood tests. We lock it, treat it and do the rehab and afterwards if they are ok we release them back to the wild,” said nurse Gib, who only gave her nickname.
However, the return to the natural habitat is not always possible, since many of these animals have spent years living with humans or being exploited in entertainment shows, as is the case with most elephants.
“We have animals that are confiscated from the illegal wildlife trafficking, animals that were hit by cars while they were leaving in the wild, animals that have been electrocuted climbing power lines in the forest or on the side of the forests, we have animals that were pets of people,” Wiek said.
To raise awareness among the population, the headquarters of the Wildlife Friends Foundation offers volunteer programs, guided tours and even rooms for short stays inside its facilities.
Likewise, this natural refuge has continued to survive for more than two decades despite multiple requests and legal actions calling for its closure, a scenario that its founder describes as “challenging” but which he said is worth it.
“We have to give them the best life possible, as close to nature as possible and that’s what we try to do here,” he said. EFE