Hidden in the isolated terrain of Far East Russia, one of the world’s most almighty species roams under an ominous threat.
Poachers and deforestation have left the largest feline on the planet at a critical risk of extinction. With numbers in the wild dwindling below 500, the extraordinary Siberian tiger may not have long left in its natural habitat.
Across the border in Northern China, the situation is vastly different.
On the outskirts of Heilongjiang’s provincial capital, a controversial breeding facility claims to hold around 800 captive cats.
The Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin is a sprawling compound of around a million square metres, branding itself as a revolutionary sanctuary.
With an impressive collection of large cats from around the world, including African lions and pumas, it attracts thousands of tourists every year.
Unfortunately it is for an entirely different, and more chilling, reason that its popularity is soaring along with the numbers.
Under the guise of research and welfare, a harrowing form of entertainment has been created for the Chinese domestic tourist market.
Busloads of local holidaymakers flood the centre for the chance to feed live animals to the ravenous Siberian tigers. Chickens, goats and even cows are ordered from a simple menu, loaded into dump trucks and then thrown to the predators.
Enthused onlookers yell and cheer from the sidelines, while the petrified livestock are hunted and then consumed by up to twenty waiting cats. The bloodshed is immense. The shock factor is overwhelming.
There are two sections of the Siberian Tiger Park that are open to the public, and both offer opposing ideas on what really goes on at the zoo.
The large outdoor facility can only be accessed by driving around in caged passenger trucks, and gives the illusion of the Siberian Tiger Park being a wholesome habitat.
Huge fields of lush grass and leafy trees sprawl out between large, electrified fences. Various groups of tigers seem to be healthy and content, with ample space and shade to sleep during the heat of the day.
Overcrowding is not an issue, but the skyscrapers of Harbin standing tall in the distance does remind visitors that the tigers are a long way from their native home.
Behind the safety of steel mesh, the trucks pass through Jurassic Park-style automated gates and into the packs of felines.
Each enclosure is segregated between particular species or age groups. Adolescent tigers are paired together, and full-grown African lions doze in their own stockade.
The live feeding takes place in these outdoor fields. The customers who pre-purchased a meal watch on in anticipated excitement to observe the tigers tear the luckless animals apart.
For those who prefer a more close-up experience, strips of beef are available to buy from a guide, which can then be hand fed to the cats through the truck’s mesh.
Jumping onto the wagon in hungry desperation, the tigers claw and chomp at the skewers, usually with the feeder prodding and teasing it in a horrible form of mild torture.
The driving tour lasts less than an hour, and during it you catch glimpses of smaller enclosures on the edge of the compound. But it is only once you reach the pedestrian section of the facility that the true realities of the zoo are revealed.
An elevated boardwalk meanders above a single grassy field that houses many large tigers. Vendors stand at different intervals, holding cages of live chickens.
They are all available to buy and push through a vent, where the tigers below will pounce and gorge on the birds. The sadistic feeding never stops for the amused tourists.
Dried-up pools are scattered throughout the area, surrounded by bare concrete. Smaller pens are left in shoddy states of disrepair, forcing overcrowding in the larger compounds.
The final stretch of causeway contains views into the two most heart wrenching parts of the Siberian Tiger Park.
A row of narrow enclosures borders the fence, each barely a few metres wide and only slightly longer. A tiny hut punctuates the far side. No water or food can be seen. Here is where the exotic cats live in troubled turmoil.
A pair of pumas tries to hide in the shade while a neighbouring leopard paces back and forth. A rare white tiger is crammed into a corner.
The world’s largest liger, an intriguing genetic blend between a tiger and an African lion, circles its cage in depressing angst. This enormous beast is confined to a space that would be more suitable for a medium-sized dog.
Only metres from the exit, the park’s signature attraction garners the most attention: A Siberian tiger cub, only a few months old. Set in a circular pagoda, separated from the rest of the adult tigers, the cute cub is put on show for the entertainment of more paying customers.
For a minor fee, singles or groups are able to pet and hold the terrified baby, with no reservation and care considered. Its mother watches on from the other side of the wall, desperate, but unable to protect its infant.
The cub screams and tries to escape while tourists wildly handle it, posing for selfies and that “once in a lifetime” photo.
There is no requirement for gloves or face masks to be worn in order to save the young tiger from catching a disease. Park officials show little concern other than collecting money.
In terms of statistics, the Siberian Tiger Park has thrived in increasing the numbers of these glorious cats. Exact numbers are hard to confirm though: The on-site museum is remarkably void of information, and instead only displays pictures of Chinese celebrities and politicians holding tiger cubs.
Some argue that by allowing the tigers to actively hunt their prey, they are preparing them for future introduction into the wild. But the reality is that these tigers will never be released into the Siberian wilderness.
Their environment is too artificial to ensure survival, and there is too much money to be made by having them stay in Harbin.
The gruesome world inside the Siberian Tiger Park continues to run under the thin premise of conservation. Every day more busloads of Chinese tourists make the short drive from downtown Harbin to experience the cheap thrill of throwing live animals to the tigers.
The positive aspect of the rising numbers of Siberian tigers is being overshadowed by its unorthodox methods. But with more money to be made, will it every change?
This story was written by Jarryd Salem, and originally appeared on News.com.au.
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