It’s binge-worthy drama, but if you’ve watched Netflix docu-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, you could be mistaken for thinking that keeping tigers in cages, and breeding them in entertainment facilities, might actually be the only way to continue their survival.
Believe it or not, but there are more tigers in captivity than in the wild. Estimates put the population of captive tigers in private hands in the US alone at 5,000. In tiger farms across China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam there are thought to be over 8,000 more.
Though there are just 3,900 tigers in the wild, can these captive-bred tigers, which are not part of a scientific conservation studbook, contribute to conservation efforts? The short answer is no, but there are many reasons why.
1. RAISED BY HUMANS VS. RAISED BY A TIGRESS
Captive tiger cubs in entertainment facilities are often removed from their mother at birth and hand reared meat at feeding times meaning they are unable to hunt for food.
Wild tiger cubs are weaned at about 6 months, but they still rely on their mother to kill prey until they are able to take down their own. Learning to hunt is a slow and difficult process, meaning the cubs remain with their mother until they are around two years old. Even as established predators, only one in ten hunts are successful.
2. CAGED OR RESTRICTED VS. HAS A LARGE TERRITORY
Though a caged tiger may be lucrative for a handful of private owners, a tiger in the wild plays a critical role in the delicate balance of an ecosystem. As a keystone species, protecting them in their natural habitats has a range of other positive effects: from conserving countless other species with which they share their homes, to protecting important watersheds and forests that millions of people rely upon for drinking water and are essential in mitigating climate change.
3. CRAMPED TOGETHER VS. ROAMING ALONE
Captive tigers in entertainment facilities and farms are often seen caged in large groups, whereas in the wild tigers are truly solitary by nature, and are only seen in pairs during mating, or in small family groups of mother and cubs who have not yet ventured off to find their own territory.
4. INBRED VS. GENETICALLY DIVERSE
Bred from small populations and sometimes to have specific qualities, such as white fur caused by a recessive gene, most captive tigers in the US and Asia will have weaker immune systems and suffer from poor health. In the wild, solitary tigers can travel hundreds of miles to mate with different partners, making them genetically diverse, healthy and fertile.
5. HUMAN-MADE HYBRID VS. ALL TIGER
Some big cat owners choose to breed tigers with lions to produce a hybrid species often referred to as ‘ligers.’ There is no record of tigers and lions breeding in the wild, though there are wild lions in Asia in the Gir National Park in Gujarat, India.
6. BRED FOR CASH VS. INVESTED IN FOR CONSERVATION
Many owners in the US breed tigers to keep a constant stream of cute cubs available for “pay to pet” entertainment, where the public pay to interact or have photos taken with the cubs. The cash they spend on the experience generally stays in the pockets of their owners, and doesn’t support wild tiger conservation efforts in Asia.
In the wild, tigeresses will have gaps of up to 3 years between litters. Millions of dollars are spent annually on protecting their habitats, ensuring there is enough prey and that they are protected from poaching.
Captive tiger breeding outside of legitimate conservation breeding programs is a problem particularly in the US, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
In the US tigers are bred mainly as pets, for public display or for entertainment, and none of these tigers could be released into the wild. In China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, tiger farms are captive facilities that breed tigers with an intent of trading in tiger products, parts or derivatives. Not only do these farms not contribute to conservation, but it is a concern that they undermine efforts to protect wild tigers from poaching by undermining law enforcement and stimulating demand.
In the US WWF is calling for more centralised oversight of the captive tiger population to ensure that they can’t feed the illegal trade that threatens wild tigers, and to ensure adequate welfare of individual animals and public safety. Across Asia, WWF is also calling on governments to commit to phasing out tiger farms and instituting clear bans on trade in tigers and their parts and products, from any source.