America’s 5,000 Backyard Tigers a Ticking Time Bomb, WWF Says

With more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than survive in the wild, the United States needs a centralized federal database to monitor the big cats, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said this week.

“Weak U.S. regulations could be helping to fuel the multimillion dollar international black market for tiger parts,” WWF said in a statement about a new review released by WWF and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

WWF released a new online tool that allows users to learn about their states’ captive tiger regulations and how weak oversight puts wild tigers and human safety at risk.

According to WWF:

  • As few as 3,200 tigers are left in the wild across Asia, down from 100,000 a hundred years ago. America’s 5,000-plus captive tigers are mostly kept by private individuals, not zoos.
  • The tigers are often in deplorable conditions and in states that do not have laws or regulations that require close monitoring or regulatory oversight.
  • Lack of sufficient state or federal regulation makes it effectively impossible to determine the number of tigers in the U.S. at any given time, where they are kept and what happens to their body parts–highly prized on the black market in Asia–when they die.
captive tiger photo.jpg

NGS stock photo of abandoned tigers at a shelter in Arkansas by Michael Nichols

Ticking Time Bomb

“In addition to being a threat to communities, captive tigers in the U.S. are a ticking time bomb for the illegal wildlife trade,” said Leigh Henry, WWF senior policy officer for Species Conservation.

“Demand for tiger parts and products is one of the leading threats to the continued survival of the species in the wild. A nationwide database is essential to ensure that captive cats don’t end up in traditional folk medicine, tiger wine, or as somebody’s hearth rug or wall hanging.”

Among the findings in the review “Tigers Among US”:

  • A patchwork of federal laws governs the possession, sale and exhibition of captive tigers. However, due to a host of exceptions exemptions, and loopholes, federal agencies charged with implementing these laws have no mandate to maintain a current inventory of how many tigers are in the country, where they are, who possesses them, when they die or how they are disposed of.
  • 17 states allow the keeping of tigers by individuals with a state permit or registration (Iowa, Oregon and Washington recently banned tiger possession but have systems in place to regulate tigers that were grandfathered in prior to enactment of the bans).
  • 8 states have no laws on captive tigers.
  • 28 states have laws banning the possession of tigers in private collections.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • A central reporting system and database for all captive tigers held within U.S. borders should be created under new or existing law. There should be no exemptions or exceptions.
  • Any person or facility owning a tiger should report on the number of tigers held, births, deaths, mortality and transfer or sale.
  • All tiger deaths should be reported immediately and the carcasses disposed of through cremation by a licensed facility.
  • State and federal law enforcement should be provided with resources to conduct undercover investigations to eliminate markets for tiger parts and detect international smuggling attempts.

“In November, world leaders will gather at a Global Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia–the world’s first global summit focused on saving a single species from extinction,” WWF said. “They will discuss a range-wide recovery plan for tigers that includes how to protect breeding populations, tiger landscapes and address poaching and international trade. The goal of the Summit is to double the number of wild tigers by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022.”

U.S. Responsibility

“The United States government has been a global leader in promoting the conservation of tigers, but it also has a responsibility to manage the tigers in its own backyard to prevent them from entering illegal trade,” Henry said. “By clamping down on this issue, we can better cooperate with other nations holding large numbers of captive tigers to prevent trade in these animals from threatening their wild counterparts.”

Tigers Among US is an updated review of the 2008 TRAFFIC report Paper Tigers?: The Role of the U.S. Captive Tiger Population in the Trade in Tiger Parts. Click here for a copy of the full report.

Posted from media materials submitted by WWF.

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  • Dr.Sandeep K Jain

    They must have got genetic abnormality due to inbreeding.The US Govt should regularise the captive Tiger facilities and make Tough Rules and regulations or confiscate thesre animals and keep in rescue centres till they are rehabilitated at suitable habitat.

  • Moya

    Words and meetings aren’t just enough. There has to be a way to hasten the law for prohibition of keeping Tigers as pet. It is not just about fuelling the black market, it’s inhuman to keep a big expensive animal within the ambit of one’s personal economy. Tigers survive in the wild as dominant solitary animals, and here’s just the concern of black marketing without a slightest hint given on how stessed they might have felt under the daily companionship of humans. At least an enclosed animal in a zoological park is less bothered by people by giving them space. They have to be taken away from the people who claim to love them and keep them as pet to rescue programmes for resettlement, which I doubt is very limited in number in the US. Let us please know that freedom is not just about us enjoying it but granting others as well.

  • Ankush Kumar

    Altough keeping tigers in private is not good both for the owners and the tigers as well… There breed should be checked and if found alright, then they should be released to the wild of india, bangladesh, malaysia, and other tiger habitats…

  • Sunil Talati

    I knew this was happening but I am still shocked. I have been working on volunteer projects for 4 years and always get told about how badly animals are treated in India, Malaysia or China. Then this year England I heard how easy it is to keep a bird of prey and now this. Truly shocking.


    on one side of the world its extinction, and on the other side this is the case , god made them beautiful and that beauty is making them suffer like never before.GOD will never forgive us.

  • Nigel Davers

    The fact that the tiger population has decreased from 100,000 to 3200 in the wild, besides urban increase is down to money alone, a poacher can earn several years wages in one kill, to sell for body parts to the Orientals for medicine.
    Until you re-educate the Chinese to stop this practice you will not stop the killing of these lovely animals until everyone of them have been killed. I practice oriental medicine and deplore the use of animal parts that has no use whatsoever in curing any illness, only the people that sell them become rich

  • Biplab Bhattacharya

    please name top ten countries where some people keep dangerous wild and venomous animals in captivity.

  • Leeada47

    Hysteria over commercial trade in Tiger parts, coming from our own domestically bred and grown tigers, will not affect trade in wild tigers, except that it is possible that ranch raised tigers might deflect some of trade in wild tigers.
    Pieces of Tiger are no more holy than pieces of cows, horses, sheep, pigs, elk, moose, bison, rabbits, humans and so on and so forth. Passing laws willy nilly is an excercise in totalitarian PC think, not in wildlife management, and ecosystem health and diversity.
    All that is at work here is the fanaticism of the warm and cuddly creature culture people, who have a totally unbalanced aproach to the environment and seem not to have the faintest idea of what an ecosytem is. These are the same people who keep house cats, an introduced species that goes feral, that kills 3.5 billion Birds, Song birds many of them, each year and is pushing many bird species to extinction.
    Animals are likely to survive only if 2 scenarios are maintained: 1) Large enough contyinuous tracts of wildlife habitat, managed with funds taken from Hunters who engage in properly managed culling operations, 2) Domestic raising of exotic species, that can not sucessfully go feral in the wild in the USA. Tigers are a lot less of a danger to our ecosystems, that wild donkeys, horses, pigs, Burmese pythons, rats, etc, but no animal that cannot become capable of imagining it’s interest in having a future tommorrow has any intrinsic to life. That includes Tigers. Someday soon, it seems, privately raised Tigers and a very few wildlife preserves mnaged by stocking from domestic private sources, will al we have of Tigers, and Lions, who have been going extinct, area by area, for a couple of thousand years. There is nothing intrinsically wrong, ethically with keeping Tigers in private holdings, as long as this is done without torturing the animal, or causing it distress. Frankly there is far more to worry about in the cruelty of factory farming, with Billions of animals tortured, than in 5000 privately held Tigers (no One really knows the actual number, it’s all conjuring at picking numbers out of air…)

  • Kumar_NY

    If we go by your suggestion, each hunter will hunt at least 1 tiger, how much of hunting license revenue do you expect to collect per hunter per annum. $48 per hunter?.

    I can give you $48 in your hands right away. Give us a conservation model what you would do with this $48?

    I know its absurd for us to be expecting it from a high school drop out like you. Ever took zoology lessons? Do you know what Eco system is? Hilly billy!

  • Ed Powell

    Those who want to ban private ownership of tigers are sentencing them to extinction. Only private ownership, with incentives to keep and raise tigers with private funds for the personal enjoyment of the owners will keep the numbers high enough to maintain the species. I am disgusted when I hear the calls for bans, as I live tigers too much to see the species destroyed by socialist whack-jobs.

  • Fred Teske

    Commenters here from India and other countries would do well to visit some of the U.S. sanctuaries before casting judgment based on these sensational “news” stories. Using the term “pet” to describe all privately owned cats is a grave injustice. Many private big cat owners do NOT consider these animals “pets” in the sense of a household pet, any more than a horse or cow is a “pet.” Many of the privately owned “pet” big cats enjoy more space and better food and care than a family dog. And many private owners have spent years studying and learning to properly care for these animals. Just as a farmer knows what’s best for his livestock, so too do most big cat owners know their cats. Yet many people with absolutely no experience in the field, but who have read too many Bambie-like stories insist they know better about what’s good for the animals. Big cat owners, as a rule, have a huge investment in those animals and their proper care, and would never deliberately abuse them. But “abuse” is what’s claimed when the cats are seized and given to others -where they are treated no better than before, if not worse. There is little to no oversight of seized animals and where they end up. Everyone admits that the majority of these captive big cats are in the hands of private owners. If they were eliminated, how many would that leave, in zoos and government-run facilities? -Not enough to ensure continuation of the species! People talk about “accredited” facilities, which is a laugh. ALL the accrediting agencies here in the States are privately run, have no government connections, and will “accredit” almost anyone who has the money for it. And then the government has the gall to require accreditation by law. This is like requiring all workers to join private unions and guilds. -Kind of like lawyers being required to belong to the American Bar Assn, which also is not a government agency. Then they want all animals, upon their death, to be cremated. What’s so wrong with a loving owner having his/her cherished big cat taxidermied as a lasting monument? If it’s dead, it’s dead, and as long as properly documented, what happens to it should be the owner’s right.

  • topcatroars

    Seriously!?! Why is WWF promoting this?!? Are they also acknowledging BCR as some sort of authority when far from true!!! She was a backyard breeder herself, has a high death rate at that facility, animals living in poor conditions and shouldn’t own big cats based on this promotion if for no other reason…IS a FL attraction and NOT a FL sanctuary…IS a million dollar NFP that pays nothing in taxes from the donations received, has her own agenda against all ownership based on her inability to sell a animals for profit herself, sponsored by a traveling big cat exhibit doing photos and working circus act to prevent her animal from being confiscated by FFW when she brought her animal into FL and housing at her property without a single permit!!! Yet, there isn’t a listing for BCR for backyard keeping that in reality she’s doing…Has a big Halloween event going on and well advertised!!! Proving beyond a shadow of doubt that BCR needs to comply with current FL laws to be considered a legitimate sanctuary and close BCR to the public as a paid attraction.

  • atom smith

    Why do animal right type care were dead tiger parts go, if the guy with a carcass can make a buck to offset the money he put in the beast, then morr power to him. Also if you want to increase the population farm the beasts for their parts and for tender lion cub steaks. Cash is a great motivator for doing positivd things, I mean hey you don’t think cows are gonna go extinct anytime soon do you?

  • Teejay

    Is it really that hard just to take the Tigers from the owners, and send them back into the wild? Just give them the amount of money they spent on the tiger.

  • Karla Szabo Fereira

    Tigers are allways tigers, even those that are supposed to be docile and domesticated can harm human lives, yes, actually precious lives. 5 thousand tigers? That’s unacceptable! Its urgent having a law prohibiting the presence of such cruel dangerous animal at home. They, all those big pet felines, must be simply killed. They are useless beasts.

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