There Are More Tigers in the USA Than in the Wild. Should We Really Be the Tiger King of the World?

Tiger King may not be on Netflix’s Top 10 anymore, but that doesn’t mean issues with the tiger trade in the United States have gone away.

Many of us expected something a little different when we started watching Tiger King last month – maybe a documentary focused on tiger conservation or the captive-bred tiger trade in the United States. Instead we got a reality show that was equally as nuts as 2020 is turning out to be. What Tiger King failed to highlight is the reason there are at least two times more captive-bred tigers in the United States than exist in the wild – and how this legal trade may impact wild tiger conservation.

Why Tiger Populations Are Declining In The Wild

Tigers (Panthera tigris) are one of the most charismatic and recognizable wildlife species in the world. Perhaps because they are such beautiful animals, tigers are endangered throughout all of their natural range due to poaching and illegal trade in tiger parts. Historically, tigers ranged throughout much of the Eurasian continent from Turkey to China and south to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Today, tigers only occupy a portion of their former habitat in isolated regions in Russia’s far east, rural China, India, and southeast Asia. Roughly 100,000 tigers existed in the wild at the start of the 20th century. Now, between 3,200 and 3,900 are now left in their natural habitat and populations continue to decline.

Five cylindrical yellow and red containers sitting on a shelf, labelled in Mandarin.
Wine containing tiger bones sold as a health tonic at a traditional Chinese medicine market. Image courtesy of International Fund for Animal Welfare

Though there is some debate, nine tiger subspecies are generally recognized: Bengal or Indian tigers (P. tigris tigris), Amur tigers (P. tigris altaica), south China tigers (P. tigris amoyensis), Malayan tigers (P. tigris jacksoni), Indo-Chinese tigers (P. tigris corbetti), Sumatran tigers (P. tigris sumatrae), Bali tigers (P. tigris balica), Javan tigers (P. tigris sondaica), and Caspian tigers (P. tigris virgata). Of these, the Bali, Javan, and Caspian tigers went extinct in the 20th century. The south China tiger is now functionally extinct in the wild, though some remain in zoos throughout China.

Caspian tigers (Panthera tigris virgata) were once native in grasslands from eastern Turkey to northwest China. These large tigers went extinct in the 1970s due to over-hunting of tigers and their prey. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What Tiger King Didn’t Tell You About The Tiger Trade

Illegal trade in tigers is driven by demand for tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine treatments. Over-hunting of prey species, human conflict, and habitat loss also contribute to these population declines. However, there are over a million acres of unoccupied tiger habitat in India and southeast Asia, indicating that poaching is the main reason for population declines, not habitat loss.

While wild tiger populations are declining and those populations are becoming increasingly fragmented or separated, populations of captive tigers continue to increase around the world. China has promoted the creation of tiger farms in order to reduce poaching of wild tigers while providing supply for the traditional Chinese medicine market. The United States (US) also has a substantial captive tiger population estimated between 5,000 to 10,000 tigers. While several accredited zoos and conservation facilities are breeding tigers to improve genetic diversity in wild tiger populations, the vast majority of these captive tigers are bred for the highly lucrative tiger petting and exhibition industry. The captive tiger industry in the US has been criticized for animal welfare issues and for detracting from wild tiger conservation. There is also some concern that the United States’ captive tiger population may provide a source of supply for the illegal wildlife trade as it is poorly regulated.

How Tiger Trade and Ownership Are Regulated in the United States

The US has numerous laws and policies governing the sale, ownership, and protection of endangered species like tigers. These regulations are designed to limit illegal trade of endangered species, promote conservation of wild tigers, and ensure the welfare of captive tigers. However, loopholes in laws and a lack of enforcement mean captive breeding of tigers and trafficking in tiger parts continue to be highly lucrative in the US.

  • Lacey Act – Enacted in 1900, this was the first legislation that set guidelines for the take (harassment, possession, or hunting) and sale of wildlife in the United States. This Act prohibits the import, export, sale, transport, and possession of any wild animal taken in a manner restricted by state or federal law. This was the first federal regulation of its kind, created to decrease poaching and protect wildlife populations.
  • Endangered Species Act (ESA) – Enacted in 1973, the ESA made it illegal to take any animal listed in the Act itself or trade those plants or animals across state or national borders without a permit. Tigers have been on the Endangered Species list since 1973 and can’t be traded without a Captive Wildlife Permit. However, in 1998 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) limited captive wildlife registration to purebreds of a species or subspecies. This meant hybrid tigers were not covered under the ESA and could be traded without following the Act’s guidelines. This incentivized mass-breeding of hybrid tigers and made it easier for captive-bred tigers to enter the illegal wildlife trade. In 2016, USFWS reversed its stance on hybrids and said any version of an endangered species was subject to ESA rules. This 2016 decision also requires a permit for selling tigers across state lines that demonstrates how the transaction will benefit tiger conservation.
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – This international treaty was established in 1975 to regulate international trade in endangered species and restrict trade to sustainable levels. Tigers are listed in Appendix I of CITES, which acknowledges that this species threatened with extinction and commercial international trade is banned unless a trader can demonstrate “exceptional circumstances”. However these restrictions on international trade are often extremely difficult to enforce, particularly in an era of social media marketplaces, and fines are ineffective at stemming illegal trafficking.
  • Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act – Enacted in 1994, this Act established a fund for habitat conservation, research, education, and anti-poaching efforts for the two species groups. It also outlawed the trade of rhinoceros and tiger parts meant for human consumption. This regulation was a positive move toward conservation of tigers in the wild.
  • Animal Welfare Act – In 1966, this regulation was enacted to set guidelines for a minimum standard of care for captive animals of all types. It also requires a license or permit for anyone using animals not native to the US for commercial activities like trade, breeding, or exhibition (activities like wildlife tourism and cub petting). However, these permits are relatively easy to obtain (some states don’t require them at all) and enforcement of Animal Welfare Act care standards and permits dropped 92% between 2016 and 2018. This lack of enforcement and oversight is a major reason we don’t know how many captive tigers exist in the US. In relation to big cats (like tigers), the Act was recently changed to limit public contact with tiger cubs to between the ages of 8-12 weeks of age. This helps ensure cubs stay with their mother until weaned, reduces profitability of those cubs, and makes captive breeding less profitable.
  • Captive Wildlife Safety Act – In 2003, the US government made it illegal to transport any big cats from a non-USDA licensed facility to another non-licensed facility. This policy was designed to limit transportation of big cats kept as pets. However, the Act does not regulate transport within states. Differences in state-to-state policies and a lack of enforcement of USDA permits make this legislation somewhat ineffective.

Why The Legal Tiger Trade May Be Bad For Wild Tigers

Regulations over captive tiger ownership and breeding in the US are designed to limit illegal take and trade of endangered species and promote conservation of tigers in the wild. However, these laws and policies fail to accomplish these goals because of a lack of enforcement, legal loopholes, and conflicting policies between state and federal governments. By allowing legal trade and exhibition of tigers within the US, the government sends mixed messages about conservation priorities. For example, public interaction with captive exotic species in the United States may promote harmful wildlife tourism elsewhere, and legally bred captive tigers may flow into the illegal wildlife trade because of a lack of oversight and unknown captive tiger population size. This supply of tiger parts may increase demand for illegally traded tiger parts and lead to increased poaching of wild tigers.  

What We Can Do To Promote Tiger Conservation

Large adult tiger and small tiger cub playing in the snow.
Mother and cub Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) play in the snow at the Bronx Zoo, an accredited breeding facility. Image courtesy of Dave Page.

Whether you’re a proponent of keeping exotic animals as pets or not, most of us would agree on the importance of conserving tigers in their natural habitat. There may not be a straightforward method to accomplishing this goal, but there are several policy alternatives that may help promote wild tiger conservation, including:

Featured Image: A Bengal tiger swimming in a zoo enclosure. Image courtesy of


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Guynup S. 2019. “Captive tigers in the U.S. outnumber those in the wild. It’s a problem.” National Geographic.

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Williamson DF and LA Henry. 2008. Paper tigers? The role of the U.S. captive tiger population in the trade in tiger parts. Traffic North America.

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Ashley Riane Booth

Ashley Riane Booth

Ashley has a background in veterinary medicine and completed a Master’s degree at Nicholls State University on endocrine disruption in blue crabs in 2016. Her research interests include wetland loss and management, ethnobotany, and science communication. Her PhD research at Louisiana State University is on coastal wetland ecology. Specifically, she is studying the processes that drive marsh surface elevation and how these processes are influenced by plant communities and management techniques. Through this work she hopes to inform marsh management plans to increase marsh elevation while providing valuable habitat for important waterfowl species.

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