Keeping tigers wild

How can we break the chains of captivity?

Poaching for illegal trade remains one of the greatest immediate threats to wild tigers.

Tigers in captivity across East and Southeast Asia and in the US far surpass those in the wild. Tigers in captivity outside of accredited zoos and legitimate research and conservation facilities have the potential to continue driving the illegal trade in wild tiger parts and products when captive tigers filter into the illegal market from captive breeding sources.

  • 5000+ captive tigers in the US

    There are more tigers in captivity in the US than there are in the wild.

  • 8000+ captive tigers in Asia

    These tigers are being held in more than 200 facilities in East and Southeast Asia.

  • 2,359 tigers were seized globally from 2000-2018

    Between 2000–2018, more than 2000 tigers were seized across 32 countries and territories globally.

Why are tigers in captivity?

In the United States

  • Private pet ownership
  • Public display and entertainment
  • Zoos, sanctuaries, research institutions
  • Money-making schemes (cub interactions, photo opportunities)

In Asia

  • Sale of tigers
  • Harvesting tiger parts to trade in tiger products or derivatives
  • Zoos
  • Entertainment facilities

In general, captive facilities that are not accredited zoos, sanctuaries, or research institutions do not contribute to conservation of wild tigers, since, once bred in captivity, tigers can never be released to or survive in the wild. These facilities could also then stimulate demand for wild tigers.

In fact, these facilities can undermine tiger conservation efforts by providing opportunities for laundering and other illegal activities, including further feeding the ongoing trade in tiger parts and products in Asia, which is poorly enforced. In Asia, these captive tiger facilities are referred to as “farms”*, and WWF is calling for phasing out and shutting these down, by working with the governments of China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

*"tiger farm”: captive facilities that breed tigers with an intent (or reasonable probability) of supplying or directly engaging in the commercial trade in tiger products, be they body parts or derivatives.

US leadership over the years

In a major win for tigers, the US passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act (BCPSA) on December 21, 2022. The law will help ensure the welfare of captive big cats as well as public safety by requiring facilities to obtain a federal permit for big cat ownership. Through these actions, we will have more information on who owns them, when they’re sold or traded, and what happens to their parts when they die. Thus, this legislation will help prevent captive tigers from ending up in the illegal trade of their parts and products—a primary threat to big cats in the wild.

The US can be positioned as a leader on addressing the captive tiger issue, especially considering that the BCPSA now bans once rampant private tiger ownership within the country. The law also addresses significant welfare and public safety issues and puts an end to the human-tiger interactions that are dangerous and harmful to both people and tigers, which was one of the main drivers of tiger breeding in the US.

It is imperative that the US cleans up its own backyard to ensure that tigers held outside of accredited zoos, sanctuaries, and research institutions do not contribute to illegal trade and to ensure the US can continue to be an effective and influential voice in tiger conservation. The passage of the BCPSA has set the US well on our way.

  1. 1975

    Tigers are listed on Appendix I of CITES.

  2. 2008

    Report declares there are more than 5,000 tigers estimated in captivity in the US, outnumbering wild populations.

  3. 2013

    President Obama establishes the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.

  4. 2016

    The US government tightens regulations around captive tigers under the Endangered Species Act.

    The END Wildlife Trafficking Act passes into law.

  5. 2020

    The 116th House of Representatives passes H.R. 1380, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, but the bill stalls in the Senate.

  6. 2021

    The Big Cat Public Safety Act is reintroduced in the 117th Congress with bipartisan support.

  7. 2022

    Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 263) passes the US House of Representatives and Senate to be signed into law by President Biden.

    Big Cat Public Safety Act signed into law by President Biden on December 21, 2022.

What is the Big Cat Public Safety Act?

Only an estimated 6% of the US captive tiger population resides in zoos and other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

A vast majority of captive tigers are privately owned and living in people's backyards, roadside attractions, and private breeding facilities. Captive tigers in the US are currently regulated by a patchwork of federal, state, and local laws. The Big Cat Public Safety Act ensures greater security for captive tigers in the US.

The legislation requires federal permitting for all big cats, increasing oversight to reduce the risk of tiger parts from the US entering the illegal wildlife trade, removing the strongest incentive for breeding, and also improving public safety and animal welfare.

What will it accomplish?

The law makes it illegal to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase, breed or possess any big cat species unless the entity exhibits the big cats under a Class C license from the US Department of Agriculture and does not allow direct public contact or interactions.

Only facilities meeting strict requirements are allowed to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase, breed or possess any big cat species.

Tiger swipes at the air with evergreen trees in the background

Thank you for taking action

For the last several years, nearly 700,000 WWF-US Activists have urged Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a huge step forward in protecting tigers, both in the US and globally.

In 2022, the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 263) was signed into law, signaling a huge win and step forward for tiger conservation.