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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
Tiger ‘farms’ are captive facilities that breed or keep tigers to supply or directly engage in the commercial trade of tiger parts or products. Tiger farms have been around since at least 1986 and despite the international trade in tigers and their parts being banned, captive tiger numbers have only increased with more tigers living in captivity than in the wild. Tiger farms do not contribute to wild tiger conservation and instead fuel the illegal tiger trade.
It’s estimated that at least 8,900 tigers are held in more than 300 captive facilities in East and Southeast Asia. Most of these tigers are found in China—around 6,500 individuals—located in more than 200 captive tiger facilities. The remaining are mostly found in Thailand with at least 1,600, Lao PDR with around 450 captive tigers, and Viet Nam with around 370.
In other countries such as the US, captive tigers are mainly held in facilities for public display and entertainment or kept privately as pets. There are an estimated 5,000 tigers kept in captivity in the US.
Poaching and illegal trade of tigers and their parts and products remain the greatest immediate threat to wild tiger populations. They’re often targeted for their bones and other body parts to use in health tonics, medicines, and their skins are sought after as status symbols among some Asian cultures.
These tiger farms perpetuate the demand for tiger products and provide cover for the illegal trade of wild tigers and their parts. The movement of tiger parts from these captive facilities, both legally and illegally, makes it difficult for law enforcement to distinguish between parts that have come from poached wild tigers or captive-bred tigers. These farms also contribute to confusion among consumers and legitimize the use and purchase of such items, meaning wild tigers could face increasing poaching pressure from the persistent or growing demand for these tiger products.
In 2018, China attempted to legalize the use of tiger bone and rhino horn from captive-bred animals by hospitals, and domestic trade in antique tiger and rhino products. Thankfully due to significant outcry from the international community, they reversed this decision shortly after. Even if restricted to antiques and use in hospitals, this legalization of this trade would have increased confusion by consumers and law enforcement about which products are legal and would likely expand the markets for other tiger and rhino products.
Although tiger farms are often legal, the actual tiger trade is illegal. Significantly, tiger range countries in Southeast Asia that have allowed tiger farms within their borders are witnessing the greatest declines in their wild tiger populations. In the past 20 years, wild tigers have been declining in Thailand (though recently have stabilized) and are extinct in Lao PDR and Viet Nam.
TRAFFIC’s 2022 report, Skin & Bones, demonstrates the severity of the threat that poaching and illegal trade still pose, finding the number of whole tigers, dead and live, as well as a variety of tiger parts equal to a conservative estimate of 3,377 tigers confiscated between January 2000 and June 2022 across 50 countries and territories. At least 744 of those confiscated tigers were from confirmed or suspected captive sources, with data showing an upward trend over decades. The true number is surely higher as these figures reflect reported seizures, while much of the trade goes undetected.
At international talks focused on the trade in endangered species in 2007, WWF helped lead the push for the adoption of a policy that says tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and products and should only be bred at a level supportive of conservation. In recent years, WWF has sought to raise the issue of tiger farms via direct engagement with government figures in those countries which allow such farms to operate.
For the first time since 2007, there is a significant movement toward ending this threat once and for all. Thailand has initiated investigations into all of its captive breeding facilities after shocking discoveries at the Tiger Temple in 2016 that included 40 tiger cub corpses preserved in jars. In China, although still the country with the most tigers in tiger farms by far, the political landscape has been changing significantly regarding the wildlife trade, including the closure of its domestic elephant ivory market in 2018
However, there’s still much more work to be done as the number of tigers in farms has been increasing rapidly in recent years—particularly in China, Laos, Thailand, and Viet Nam—and even the establishment of new farms in other countries.
In October 2016, Lao PDR announced that it would close its tiger farms however it has yet to follow through with its commitment. WWF is calling on these governments of China, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Viet Nam to phase out their tiger farms and end the trade in tiger parts from any source.
While the US doesn’t have tiger farms, there are an estimated 5,000 captive tigers in America. A vast majority of these captive tigers are privately owned, often by people not trained or resourced to care for them. This leaves the animals open to mistreatment and exploitation, while also risking public safety.
Often public contact with these tigers—specifically with young cubs—for “tiger encounters”, playtimes, or photo opportunities means that private owners have a financial incentive to breed a constant stream of tiger cubs to supply their operations. However, once those tigers reach a certain size and age, they can no longer be used for public contact and thus are less profitable, while at the same time becoming vastly more expensive to feed and house.
Up until recently, there has been little federal regulation requiring the tracking of captive tigers in the US, leaving these animals vulnerable to exploitation by wildlife criminals pushing tigers and tiger parts into the illegal wildlife trade.
In December 2022, the Big Cat Public Safety Act (BCPSA) was passed and signed into law. The BCPSA will help us better track and protect captive tigers and prevent them from ending up in the illegal trade of their parts and products—a primary threat to big cats in the wild.
This is just the first step. Now we have to ensure that the BCPSA is effectively implemented to serve its purpose and to ensure US tigers can’t enter illegal trade. WWF will continue to advocate for sufficient funding allocations to BCPSA implementation and enforcement and to ensure that those violating the law are prosecuted.