5 things Tiger King doesn’t explain about captive tigers

Tiger King, Netflix’s new docu-series, is roaring with popularity, but behind the drama, there is a frightful truth: captive tigers in the United States are a significant conservation issue and could impact tigers in the wild.

1. Captive tigers are a major problem in the United States.

It is estimated that there are around 5,000 captive tigers in the US, more than the approximately 3,900 remaining in the wild. A vast majority of these captive tigers are privately owned and living in people’s backyards, roadside attractions, and private breeding facilities. Only an estimated 6% of the US captive tiger population resides in zoos and other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Many of these private tiger owners aren’t properly trained to care for wild animals, making the animals vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation. Often these facilities will allow public contact with the tigers, including photo ops and playtimes with tiger cubs. Not only is the welfare of these tigers compromised, but public health and safety is at risk during these encounters.

2. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say exactly how many captive tigers there are in the US.

US tigers are currently regulated by a patchwork of federal, state, and local laws. No one government agency monitors and tracks where all of these tigers are, who owns them, when they're sold and traded, or what happens to their valuable parts when they die. More centralized oversight of US captive tigers is required to ensure that they can’t feed the illegal trade that threatens wild tigers and to ensure adequate welfare of individual animals and public safety.

3. Breeding tigers in captivity is not conservation.

    Public encounters with tiger cubs are popular and incredibly lucrative for many tiger facilities, providing a strong incentive to breed captive tigers to maintain a continuous supply of cubs for entertainment. However, these tigers are often inbred, which can cause birth defects and health issues, making them unsuitable for introduction to the wild. Reintroduction efforts could, however, include translocation of individuals from existing wild tiger populations in order to create new viable breeding populations. Given adequate protections, tiger numbers will continue to increase across their natural range but conservation efforts need to be focused on recovering these wild populations.

    4. The US has put in place stricter regulations around captive tigers over the last decade, but we need to do more.

    In April 2016, the US government tightened regulations around captive tigers under the Endangered Species Act, making it more difficult for these animals to filter into and bolster the illegal wildlife trade. More than 450,000 WWF supporters called on the US government to implement these new federal rules which ensure that tigers cannot be sold across state lines unless the seller acquires a permit and can demonstrate the transaction would contribute to tiger conservation. Another rule under the Animal Welfare Act limits public contact with tiger cubs between the ages of 8-12 weeks. This small window reduces the profitability of these cubs for photo ops and cub petting and will hopefully reduce the incentive for continued breeding.

    However, Congress needs to act to ensure greater security for US captive tigers by passing the Big Cat Public Safety Act. This legislation would require federal permitting for all big cats and would prohibit public contact with cubs, reducing 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.

    5. Captive breeding facilities in Asia, or ‘tiger farms,’ also feed the illegal wildlife trade.

      One of the world’s largest tiger farms–the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park–is located in the northeast corner of China. At least 8,000 tigers are estimated to be held across more than 200 tiger farms in East and Southeast Asia–that's more than double the number of tigers left in the wild.

      The number of tigers in tiger farms has escalated rapidly in recent years, with 7,000-8,000 tigers reportedly held in a large number of facilities throughout East and Southeast Asia—most notably in China, Thailand, Lao PDR, and Vietnam. This captive population is much higher than the globally estimated 3,900 tigers remaining in the wild. WWF believes the current scale of captive breeding operations within tiger farms is a significant obstacle to the protection and recovery of wild tiger populations, as they undermine and complicate enforcement efforts and help to perpetuate demand for tiger parts and products.

      WWF is calling on governments to commit to phasing out tiger farms and instituting clear bans on trade in tigers and their parts and products, from any source. While the situation with US captive tigers is different than that in Asia, it is critical that the US, a consistent leader in wildlife conservation, clean up our own backyard to ensure our tigers don’t contribute to illegal trade and to ensure the US can continue to be an effective and influential voice in tiger conservation.

      Learn more about WWF’s work to shut down tiger farms and regulate captive tiger ownership in the US.