2020 Global Tiger Day comes with good news, but Congress still has work to do


Tiger farms — facilities that breed captive tigers to supply the commercial trade of tigers and tiger parts — have proliferated across Asia over the last two decades. And, as Netflix’s popular docuseries “Tiger King” highlights, America has its own captive tiger problem.

That’s why the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which we are affiliated with, are urging Congress to pass new legislation that would provide stronger protections for tigers and other big cats in the U.S. This is an opportunity to do right by these majestic creatures at home, while also setting a powerful example for the world.

Today, on Global Tiger Day, we have reason to celebrate. After plummeting by 97 percent over the course of a century, wild tiger populations are now moving in the right direction. And yet, the population of tigers in the wild — roughly 3,900 — is still dwarfed by the population of privately held tigers. Current estimates indicate that there are at least 8,000 tigers being held in more than 200 facilities across East and Southeast Asia. Around 6,500 of these tigers are located in China, with the remaining animals spread almost exclusively between Thailand, Lao PDR and Vietnam.

These tiger farms are a threat to the conservation of tigers in the wild. Many illegal tiger parts and products — from their skins down to their bones — come from these farms or are laundered through them. A 2019 analysis estimated that more than 100 tigers per year have been seized since the turn of the century, with a significant number in recent years suspected to originate from captive sources. This complicates enforcement efforts and fuels demand, which in turn drives more poaching of wild tigers. These facilities do not contribute to conservation efforts and should not be confused with legitimate facilities that conduct conservation breeding programs. If we are to succeed in our efforts to conserve and expand the number of tigers in the wild, these farms must be phased out.

But, as “Tiger King” reminds us, illegal, unethical and under-regulated breeding and trade of tigers is not isolated to Asia. While the exact number of privately-held tigers in the U.S. is unknown, the U.S. captive tiger population likely exceeds the entire population of tigers remaining in the wild. Furthermore, the private ownership of tigers provides no oversight into breeding programs and commercial activity, including what happens to their valuable body parts when they die. A patchwork of regulations and jurisdictions, riddled with loopholes, governs captive tigers in the U.S. Many tigers in the U.S. exist under no regulation at all, with only a very small percentage maintained in AZA-accredited zoos or other facilities where welfare and conservation are paramount.

The U.S. has been a champion on the world stage for many conservation issues, and that leadership has often catalyzed action by other nations. When the U.S. stepped up to implement a near total ban on the ivory trade in 2016, China quickly followed suit. We need to demonstrate that same U.S. leadership for tigers, by ensuring we are managing threats in our own backyard, and encouraging other governments to do the same.

To that end, AZA and WWF support the Big Cat Public Safety Act (BCPSA) (H.R. 1380/S. 2561), a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The bill would prohibit the possession of tigers, leopards, lions and other big cat species by private individuals, and outlaw direct public contact for commercial purposes (such as cub petting and photo ops), which drive the unscientific and unethical breeding of and trade in big cats. 

The fight to save tigers isn’t over. Beginning the reversal of their decline in the wild in some countries after so many years of loss is major progress. But even as we continue the necessary work to further boost the number of tigers in the wild, we need to recognize the role that privately held tigers play in keeping the illegal tiger trade alive. For tigers and other big cats, the U.S. must walk the walk of global conservation leadership. Passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act would be a step in the right direction.

Dan Ashe is the CEO and president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Barack Obama. Follow the organization on Twitter @zoos_aquariums. 

Ginette Hemley is the senior vice president of Wildlife Conservation at World Wildlife Fund. Follow the organization on Twitter @World_Wildlife.

Tags animal trafficking Barack Obama big cats Big Cats Safety Act Brian Fitzpatrick China Congress International Tiger Day Mike Quigley Richard Blumenthal tiger king Tigers Wildlife trade wildlife trafficking World Tiger Day

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