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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...

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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