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"Tiger King" highlights why America's big cats must be protected

 "Tiger King" highlights why America's big cats must be protected
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At a time when millions of Americans are stuck at home looking for binge-worthy content, a new Netflix docu-series has seized the spotlight. The series, "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness," delves into the bizarre story of Joe Exotic and the world of big cat breeding.

Behind the sensationalism, though, is a grim truth: there are more captive tigers in American backyards than in the wild

These endangered big cats are largely unregulated by the federal government, making it impossible to know who owns them, when they're sold and traded, or what happens to their valuable parts when they die. 

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Without this information, the United States is unable to ensure that its captive tiger population isn't feeding the illegal trade that remains the primary threat to the estimated 3,900 tigers remaining in the wild. 

The Big Cat Public Safety Act would go a long way towards ensuring that the U.S. is minimizing its risk of contributing to the illegal trade of tiger parts and products, primarily by requiring a federal license for ownership and banning public contact activities. 

From whisker to tail, every tiger body part has been found in wildlife markets. Because of persistent consumer demand, their bones and other body parts are used for modern health tonics and folk remedies, and their skins are sought after as status symbols. 

Though evidence of America’s tigers in the illegal trade is scant, the astounding money to be made in the trade provides a hard-to-resist incentive for both owners who can no longer afford to house and feed their pets and people with criminal intent.

And the U.S. isn’t the only country with a captive tiger problem. Tiger farms, facilities breeding tigers with the intent to trade, pose another serious threat to the wild population. This production perpetuates the illegal trade that drives the poaching of wild tigers. It is estimated that there are somewhere around 8,000 tigers in Asia’s tiger farms, spread primarily across China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.  

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These issues may seem domestic, but they are interconnected. The U.S. has historically been a global leader in conservation. As demonstrated recently by the 2016 elephant ivory ban in the U.S. and the subsequent 2018 ivory ban in China, strong U.S. leadership can influence other countries to follow suit. But on tiger issues, the U.S. has thus far been handing Asian countries a bargaining chip — America’s lack of strong action allows Asian governments to justify their tiger farms, continue supplying high demand for tiger products and exacerbating illegal trade.  

Securing a future for tigers in the wild is one way to provide the justice commentators are demanding for the tigers featured in "Tiger King." The U.S. must first, however, clean up its own backyard. Congress needs to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act and clamp down on the private ownership of tigers. This will not only help ensure stricter animal welfare standards, but also help ensure America’s captive tigers aren’t filtering into the illegal wildlife trade. 

It will also increase U.S. credibility when advocating for governments of tiger range countries to enact policies that protect their wild populations and for those with tiger farms to begin an immediate phase out of these facilities. 

"Tiger King" dragged a dark secret of American life into the light. Now it’s time for America’s leaders to do right by these majestic animals and be a powerful example for the rest of the world.

Leigh Henry is the director of Wildlife Policy at World Wildlife Fund (WWF).