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EU’s ‘unlikely’ role in global tiger trade revealed in new WWF, TRAFFIC report

30 September 2020 - Weak legislation and limited checks on private captive tiger facilities across the EU and the UK provide significant opportunity for tiger parts, such as skins and bones, to enter illegal trade, according to a joint report from WWF and TRAFFIC, Falling Through the System: The role of the European Union captive tiger population in the trade in tigers.

Based on an analysis of CITES trade data (1), the EU and the UK continue to trade in live tigers and tiger parts and products with countries where tiger farms are known to feed the illegal tiger trade, such as China, Thailand, and Viet Nam. 

Between 2013-17, a total of 103 live tigers were directly exported from the EU and the UK and 84 live tigers were re-exported, all with legally obtained, government-issued permits. Of these, a total of 43 live tigers were exported or re-exported from the EU and the UK for commercial purposes (as opposed to non-commercial purposes, such as for research or zoos). The EU and the UK have also been implicated in the illegal trade of tigers, with 95 reported seizures involving various tiger parts and products, as well as live tigers, in the same time period.

Commercial exports are taking place despite the restrictions set out in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), including Decision 14.69 which states tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and products

“The trade of captive tiger products not only complicates enforcement efforts, it also legitimises the use of tiger products and can stimulate market demand,” said Heather Sohl, Tiger Trade Leader at WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative. “European countries have been rightly vocal on the need to close tiger farms in Asia, but they too are an unlikely player in the global trade in tigers. Securing the future of wild tigers means addressing the issue at home, which is why the EU and the UK must urgently start with a ban on the commercial tiger trade.”

In 14 countries across the EU and including the UK, private individuals and/or circuses can still keep tigers. Based on a deeper analysis in the report of six countries selected for suspected or known links to the captive tiger trade — Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy and the UK — there are weak regulations and compliance checks in place to register, breed and then dispose of parts and products when these tigers die. 

“We found that rigorous reporting requirements and compliance checks are generally not in place. Inspections of facilities are infrequent, and the procedures to dispose of tigers after they die are poorly legislated and typically carried out by external companies without government oversight. This raises questions as to how these countries can ensure tiger parts, such as skins and bones, do not enter illegal trade,” said Louisa Musing, Programme Officer at TRAFFIC and author of the report. 

"Based on Czech cases, we know that tigers from the EU serve as a source of raw material for the black market. There are many tigers in Europe in captivity, but we do not know the exact number, and where they are located, because each country has different national regulations. Some countries have records about holders, but most do not. This situation greatly complicates law enforcement regarding the trade in captive tigers," said Pavla Říhová, Head of CITES and Biodiversity Department, at the Czech Environmental Inspectorate.

There are a minimum of 850 captive tigers in the EU and the UK, according to animal welfare organisation Four Paws (2), while there are over 5,000 in the US, and over 8,000 in Asia. These populations vastly outnumber the estimated 3,900 tigers remaining in the wild.  

Among the six countries selected for deeper analysis in the report, only the Czech Republic has a central register recording information on tigers held nationwide. 

“It’s nigh on impossible to know how many tigers there currently are in the EU. The management and enforcement of rules around the keeping of captive tigers are usually under the purview of regional and local authorities. There are also limited measures and reporting requirements in place to assess accurately and regularly the total numbers at a national level, let alone across the EU,” said Louisa Musing.

In recent years, significant attention has been drawn to the EU’s role in the global tiger trade. A 2019 Interpol report implicated several EU Member States among the top 30 global exporters and importers of tigers between 1975 and 2018. In 2018, the Czech Republic disclosed evidence of organised criminal groups involved in the captive breeding of tigers to illegally export to Asia, which exploited weaknesses in the national regulatory frameworks and enforcement measures. Similar weaknesses exist in the other countries investigated by the report.

Among the report’s recommendations: 
  • ban the commercial trade of captive tigers (and their parts and products), both within and outside of the EU and the UK;
  • ban keeping of tigers in circuses and private facilities, unless significantly improved controls over the keeping of all tigers in captive facilities is sufficient to ensure legality;
  • establish an EU-level central registry and collect DNA samples from all tigers in captive facilities;
  • conduct regular inspections of all private facilities, random and targeted investigations, and strengthen regulations for the disposal of dead tigers.


(1) Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), trade data for which can accessed here:  https://trade.cites.org/

(2) According to this 2020 report by Four Paws, European authorities (including those outside the EU, such as Montenegro) reported 913 captive tigers in Europe in 2018/2019. The 850 figure is a result of subtracting the countries outside of the EU and UK from this total.

Media contact:

Tristan Tremschnig, Communications & Advocacy Director, WWF Tigers Alive Initiative, tristant@wwf-tigers.org, +852 9712 3301 (based in Hong Kong)

Richard Thomas, Head of Communications, TRAFFIC International, richard.thomas@traffic.org +44 79 2130 9176 (based in the UK)