Captive tiger management: what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly?
The number of tigers living in caged Texan backyards is greater than the global population of wild tigers.
This alarming statement may be oversimplified and in need of probing, but the fact that our best estimates of wild tigers are more reliable than our knowledge of captive tiger numbers in just one US state is worrying, to say the least.
Whilst today there are less than 4,000 wild tigers, there may be up to 20,000 living in captivity throughout the world. Some are found in accredited zoos and facilities, however, the overwhelming majority are subjected to inhumane treatment and unsuitable conditions in private collections in the United States, as well as commercial tiger breeding farms in Asia. Captive tigers are prisoners of war – a war against wild tigers which spanned the twentieth century and still ravages the forests of Asia and the Russian Far-East today. The last century saw vast tracts of habitat degraded and lost, government-backed eradication efforts intensified, and the imprisonment and exploitation of tigers become the norm. By the mid-1900s the Bali tiger had been hunted to extinction, then both the Javan and Caspian tiger sometime before 1980, and soon followed the disappearance of the South China tiger from the wild – six subspecies remain, and all are in dire straits.
The captivity of tigers can be separated into three loose categories: the (comparatively) good, the bad, and the ugly. The good – captive management by reputable sanctuaries, zoos which are as close to wild situation facilities as possible – work with the primary goal of conserving endangered species; due to the situation of wild tigers and how close to extinction wild populations are, modern zoos have had to become a part of the conservation toolkit and can provide much-needed education and funding for real-world biodiversity issues, including tiger conservation.
Alas, the antagonists of the story – such as the exploitative exotic pet owners posing as big cat lovers (the bad) or the criminal tiger farm owners killing for profit (the ugly) – seem to be in an uncomfortably comfortable position. Laws surrounding big cat ownership throughout most of US is vague and easily circumvented, whilst the trade in tiger parts and their derivatives in Asia is flourishing despite international and domestic bans.
More must be done to alienate irresponsible tiger owners and managers claiming to do conservation work from the scientifically managed zoos who as a result need to defend their good practice and intentions. More urgently, however, the farming of tigers for medicinal and ornamental purposes must be quashed like the virulent plague it is.
The good – tiger conservation and responsible captive management.
Over the past 150 years, tigers have lost 93% of their range due to human exploitation, leading to isolated and declining populations. Behind habitat restoration and landscape continuity projects, captive management of endangered species represents a well-proven and controlled way of protecting species from extinction in many cases where options are limited. Zoos play a last resort role as insurance against the extinction of tigers from the wild by collectively maintaining interbreeding populations. Should it be necessary, this allows the opportunity to support wild populations via reintroductions.
The success of captive tiger populations relies heavily on the cooperative and coordinated relationships that exist between zoos across the globe, held accountable by regional, national, and international bodies. Herein lies the difference between the good and the bad or the ugly – private owners and breeders do not work under such high standards and conservation-focused mandates. Instead, they often stem from a childish want and financial incentives.
The bad – tiger exploitation and irresponsible captive management.
A tiger is a 500-pound apex predator with three-inch teeth and retractable claws; a tiger is not an animal that anyone should want to keep in captivity unless for urgent conservation purposes only. Tigers confined to cages in private backyard collections hold no conservation value for wild tigers whatsoever and instead are a danger to human welfare, let alone subject to pitiful standards of animal welfare. Between 1998 to 2007, there were 159 tiger attacks on humans (114 injuries and 45 deaths) in the US alone. Injuries and deaths, however, are brushed aside as poor husbandry or bad luck and not the inevitable consequence of hundreds of thousands of years of innate predatory instinct.
Tigers bred in captivity in the US do not run the gauntlet of natural selection, instead they are bred to be unusual or different, weeding out strong genes needed to survive in the wild. Captive tigers are often crossed with lions to produce an unnatural liger. The crossing of different tiger subspecies also means that captive bred cats are mutts and cannot be placed into conservation-based breeding programmes in credited zoos. Humanity’s obsession with ‘other’ has resulted in white tigers being extremely popular in big cat facilities. All white tigers in the US originate from a single white Bengal tiger caught from the wild in the 1960s, meaning they are heavily inbred. The white leucistic gene is meant to be rare and not naturally selected for in nature.
An issue recently drawn into public forum regarding the bad is that of the exotic pet trade. The US has no federal laws prohibiting or even regulating private possession of big cats, which has led to the burgeoning subculture of tiger “enthusiasts” breeding tigers for private collections. The demand in the US has resulted in a growing number of breeders, mass producing tiger cubs to sell to private customers as cute pets.
However, as these cubs grow into the fearsome predators they are destined to be, they are no longer the cute plaything they once were and are, either sold on to a willing buyer or passed on to overcrowded sanctuaries. With up to 400 requests received each year to accept big cats, sanctuaries just cannot keep up and the tiger is becoming overpopulated and homeless in the US. Buyers blame the breeders who supply the cubs, and breeders predictably blame the demand. This form of tiger breeding has no beneficial bearing on tiger conservation and is not done in a way to maintain genetic diversity, instead solely focused on profit margins and a continuous supply of inbred cubs.
Worth more dead than alive in Asia, captive-bred tigers are farmed and then sold into the black market to fuel the demand for traditional medicine and unessential lifestyle accessories.
The ugly – tiger farms and morality management.
In 2007, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international and domestic trade in captive-bred tiger parts and their derivatives. However, since then countries such as China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam have intensified tiger farming operations in flagrant non-compliance of international wildlife trade policy. Tigers have an extremely high reproductive potential, with females breeding as early as three years old and gestation periods of only 100 days culminating in up to five cubs. Along with a lack of government intervention, this has allowed tiger farms to thrive in these countries and the huge profits of the business have resulted in other countries emerging as a source, such as South Africa.
Whilst the wild tiger population in China is less than 50 individuals, an estimated 6,000 are found throughout hundreds of Chinese tiger farms. By its own admission, the government does not have the capacity (or will) to monitor this illegal activity and in fact, seems to encourage it. In 2005, Chinese tiger breeders and traders claim to have received a ‘secret’ government notification allowing the sale of tiger bone from tiger farms to hospitals for use in traditional medicine as an anti-inflammatory drug. Widely available throughout Asia, tiger skins, teeth, and claws are used for home décor and statements of power and wealth, and tiger meat is seen as an exotic delicacy. The supply of such trivial yet damning trinkets seems to be in no danger of suffering from trade restrictions. – Between 2016 and 2017 a facility in Vietnam supplied more than 300 tigers both dead and alive into the illegal trade. Chinese policy changes announced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, prohibiting the trade of wildlife for purposes of consumption, is a big positive, however, these changes do not go far enough as wildlife parts can still be traded for medicinal purposes.
There has been no halt in tiger farming even since trade was banned. The large, emerging middle-class across some parts of Asia has increased the demand for expensive tiger parts and products, fuelling an already thriving illegal international trade. Not only are these captive-breeding facilities in violation of animal welfare by any standard, but they put wild tigers in further jeopardy due to the perceived superiority and novelty of tiger parts not derived from captivity.
The focus of tiger conservation
The captivity and breeding of tigers must be reserved only for conservation purposes, and even then, it must be minimised with a far greater focus on protecting wild populations. Unregulated breeding facilities and private collections offer no value to wild tigers and only serve to escalate their risk of extinction from the wild. Tiger conservation should be focused on habitat protection and restoration, genetic bolstering, changing legislation and education programmes. . The great number of tigers bred in captivity and resigned to a life outside of their rightful homes requires further attention, with the continuous supply chain needing to be cut. This would lessen the need for sanctuaries, freeing up funds to be diverted into meaningful conservation efforts. A caged tiger is not a spiritual encounter with nature, it is a desperately sad expression of the human ego.
Written by: Linus Hiscox, studying MSc Global Biodiversity Health and Conservation at the University of Bristol and DSWF Programmes and Policy Intern.