Myths, lies and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bullsh*t, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are more captive tigers in the United States than there are wild tigers in the entire world. Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but biologists believe there are around 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild. No official count exists, but many people believe there are more than 10,000 captive tigers in the United States alone.
Various outlets have made this claim in the past few years, including National Geographic and other reliable sources. It has been repeated on several MeatEater podcasts. The most famous example surfaced in the popular Netflix documentary “Tiger King,” which chronicles the insane world of big cat profiteers.
The biggest issue with determining facts here is that the data collection in the U.S. is flawed at best. We simply do not know how many captive tigers are in our country. A practice that likely began with tigers being introduced into circuses in the 1830s soon moved to zoos across the country and has now ballooned into a subculture of pet tigers and private zoos.
According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the nonprofit organization that serves as the accrediting body for the industry, less than 5% of captive tigers are housed in accredited facilities. An estimated 350 tigers are managed through the AZA while thousands are held in zoos that fall outside of its oversight.
Thanks to inconsistent ownership laws on the state level and this network of relatively ungoverned, privately-owned zoos and sanctuaries, the captive tiger industry is alive and well in the midst of shadowy dealings and sparse statistics. The major issue here is that only 32 states have full or partial bans, while the rest present an inconsistent landscape of permits, licenses, and lack of regulation altogether.
It’s a bit shocking that private ownership of a highly dangerous animal categorized as endangered in the Red List of Threatened Species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature is allowed at all. It seems even more unbelievable that there could be an unknown (and largely unaccounted for) number of these exotic predators in the U.S. The Endangered Species Act outright prevents importation of wild tigers and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has generally prohibited international trade in tigers, including parts and derivatives, for commercial purposes since 1975.
Many reports have attempted to estimate the number of captive tigers in our country, but the fact remains that we just don’t know. Based on what we do know, a number higher than 10,000 is very possible.
There is much better data when it comes to tigers in the wild. Numerous conservation organizations like the World Wildlife Fund are using new technology to track and document cats around the world.
Reports from the WWF and Global Tiger Forum in 2016 found that wild tiger populations rose for the first time in more than a century from an estimated population of 3,200 in 2010 to nearly 3,900 just six years later. Of the six subspecies currently recognized, the Amur, Sumatran, and Malayan tigers are all thought to number fewer than 500 individuals in the wild. That same report showed that India, Russia, Nepal, and Bhutan all saw population upticks.
This concerted international effort to bring these wild populations back from the brink is just beginning to see results. Despite those positive trends, captive U.S. populations will almost certainly outpace any future growth if the industry is allowed to maintain the current status quo.
It’s clear that without further oversight and regulation, we may never know the true extent of the captive tiger industry in the United States. That said, the claims made in “Tiger King” are by all accounts representative of the truth. There are more captive tigers in America than there are in all of the wild. This is a strange, if not sobering, fact that underlines our culture’s attraction to large, exotic predators.
There’s an economy built around the private ownership of these big cats, and it’s hard to imagine that ending anytime soon. Private zoos often produce much of their revenue from cub petting, which drives them to breed tigers in order to always have young cubs available. Legislation like The Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 1380) aims to ultimately ban this practice for good, but it remains to be seen if its supporters will be successful. Until then, we’re left with the seven episodes of mind-bending ridiculousness in the documentary that captivated America.
Feature image via Wiki Commons.