World Tiger Day 2020: the trouble with Tiger Kings

Katherine Latham July 29, 2020

Joe Exotic or Carole Baskin? Who did you root for? The Netflix docuseries, Tiger King, is full of larger than life characters you can love or hate – or love and hate – but in all the drama – was the plight of the tigers forgotten?

Today is World Tiger Day and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working hard to end the illegal tiger trade and to phase out tiger farms in the United States.

There are just 3,900 tigers remaining in the wild. The US is home to around 5,000 captive tigers – and there is no accounting for these animals: who owns them, when they’re sold or what happens to their valuable parts when they die.

Amateur keepers in the US are a major problem

A staggering ninety-four per cent of captive tigers in the US live in people’s backyards, roadside attractions and private breeding facilities.

Private tiger owners often lack proper training in the care of wild animals, leaving these tigers vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation. Playtimes with tiger cubs can cause extreme stress and death.

“WWF’s concern with captive tigers in America’s roadside zoos and attractions is that these facilities could easily filter valuable tiger parts into the illegal trade and perpetuate – or even stimulate – consumer demand.”

Leigh Henry, WWF’s lead on captive tigers

Is breeding tigers in captivity conservation?

Keeping tigers can be lucrative, providing a strong incentive to make more of them.

However, these tigers are often inbred resulting in birth defects and health issues. This means they cannot be reintroduced to the wild. This is not conservation.

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.

Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images

Trade in tigers is a global problem

Captive tigers are also a problem in Asia – particularly in China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam – where “tiger farms” breed tigers for their parts (as opposed to as tourist attractions).

The number of tigers in tiger farms has escalated rapidly in recent years, estimated to be around 8,000. 

“The current scale of captive breeding operations within tiger farms, and the illegal trade running from and through them, are significant obstacles 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.”

Leigh Henry, WWF’s lead on captive tigers

Is extinction a done deal?

After a century of decline, the global number of tigers in the wild increased for the first time in 2016 from an estimated 3,200 to about 3,900. 

Tiger populations are stable or increasing in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Russia and China. 

“Tigers are an endangered species, but we can be cautiously optimistic about their future.”

Leigh Henry, WWF’s lead on captive tigers
Photo by Roland Neveu/LightRocket via Getty Images

If I visit a zoo how can I tell the animals are well cared for?

Do your research: Does the facility have any kind of credible accreditation? (Such as by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums)? Look at reviews – and read the bad ones. This is often where you’ll find concerns about animal welfare.

Let wild animals be wild: Look for animals that are able to engage in natural behaviours in natural environments. Do they have access to shelter, enough space, somewhere secluded they can escape the crowds?

Look for warning signs: Avoid facilities where animals have visible injuries. Don’t go if animals are made to perform or interact with tourists. Check if the animals are chained up or their enclosures are dirty.

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.

They are urging the US Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act – legislation that would require federal permitting for all big cats and would prohibit public contact with cubs. Their hope is that this would reduce the risk of tiger parts from the US entering the illegal wildlife trade and so remove the strongest incentive for breeding.

“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.”

Leigh Henry, WWF’s lead on captive tigers
Katherine is a freelance journalist and has written for the BBC, The Guardian as well as local and trade publications. She writes about human rights, parenting and the environment.