Tiger Expert Answers Questions About Netflix's Tiger King

By John Goodrich, Ph.D.
Chief Scientist

Tiger laying on grass

With its larger-than-life characters, Netflix’s docu-series “Tiger King” put a controversial spin on a real problem — breeding tigers for profit has created an animal welfare, public safety and law enforcement nightmare in the U.S. As this series and a number of investigative reports that preceded it have shown, America has a big and growing captive tiger crisis right in its own backyards, but it pales in comparison to the one facing endangered wild populations. In this blog, Panthera Chief Scientist and Tiger Program Director Dr. John Goodrich talks about the threats facing wild tigers and why we need to advocate for them now more than ever.

What is the status of tigers in the wild?

Only about 4,500 tigers remain in the wild, as opposed to about 100,000 a century ago. To provide some context, by some estimates there are more than twice as many tigers living in roadside zoos in the U.S. than there are left in the wild.

What are the main reasons tigers are declining in the wild?

Their decline is the result of poaching and habitat loss, with poaching being the top threat today, driven by a very high black-market price for their parts, primarily for Traditional Asian Medicine. This poaching and the multi-billion dollar trade that drives it are illegal in every single tiger range state.

To help visualize the magnitude of the poaching problem, imagine an area roughly the size of France and Spain combined — around 1 million km2 of tiger habitat — sitting vacant, emptied of tigers and their prey. Due to poaching, tigers have gone extinct in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia just in the past 15 years.

The second biggest threat to tigers is habitat loss. Tigers occupy some of the most densely populated countries in the world that are experiencing some of the greatest deforestation rates in the world.

What are the solutions?

The solutions are simple, at least conceptually. Tigers are a resilient species. They are generalists that can survive in a variety of conditions, from the frigid forests of the Russian Far East to the hot tropical forest in southern Asia. All they need to thrive is some decent forest — it doesn’t have to be pristine old-growth —and protection from people. At the site-level — say a national park — tiger conservation involves patrolling to catch poachers and stop habitat degradation while working with local communities to improve their lives in ways that have a reduced impact on tigers and their habitat.

At larger scales, we need to ensure protected areas remain connected by tiger habitat, which is more complex and means planning and managing infrastructure development, agriculture and logging, in conjunction with local communities. These are usually the areas where tigers and people overlap, so we also need to manage human-tiger conflict to minimize and mitigate attacks on livestock and even people.

tiger walking
Commercially captive-bred tigers cannot be used to restore dwindling wild tiger populations. | © KARIN SAUCEDO

The Tiger King series shed light on the commercial exploitation of captive-bred tigers in the U.S. — as have several other investigative news pieces in recent months. What’s going on?

When most people think of breeding tigers for profit, they think of Asia’s tiger farms, where there are thousands of tigers in captivity. However, many countries breed and exhibit tigers for commercial purposes, either legally, or by skirting the law. In the U.S., there are an estimated 5,000-10,000 tigers in captivity, not including those in accredited zoos. These tigers are bred for profit — not for conservation or education. In the U.S., 95% of captive tigers are privately owned. They are bred and kept primarily to entertain tourists who pay to pet and feed tiger cubs and have their photos taken with them.

“Roadside zoos” that exhibit wild cats often market themselves as having a conservation mission. Can tigers bred at these facilities ever be released in the wild?

Commercially captive-bred tigers cannot be used to restore dwindling wild tiger populations. Genetically, they are unfit for re-introduction; they are hybrids of the five extant wild tiger subspecies, or even bred with other cat species, like lions, and often have genetic defects. Further, generations in captivity and handling by people means they would be unlikely to survive in the wild. Most tigers in captivity are bred for human use and entertainment.

The concerns about the welfare of tigers in these places are pretty obvious. But do roadside zoos have any negative impacts on wild tigers?

The biggest threat from these backyard operations is the role they play in deflecting attention and dollars away from the plight of wild tigers and legitimate efforts to save them. Roadside zoo owners often engage in “greenwashing” to protect their image and attract visitors. They may make small donations to conservation organizations, or say they do, but there is no evidence that any of these operations are substantively funding wild tiger conservation. Also, the captive tiger cubs that age out of “pay-to-play” petting, or get too big for an owner to handle, have to go somewhere. This has created a need for big cat sanctuaries in the U.S. that raise funds from the public to house and maintain these cats for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, funding for wild tiger conservation has been harder and harder to come by in recent years even as some populations in Southeast Asia teeter on the brink of extinction. It’s a cruel irony that it will cost more to take care of America’s glut of unwanted tigers than it would to secure a future for tigers in the wild.

Commercial breeding advocates make a case that increasing the supply of captive-bred tigers in the marketplace takes the pressure off of wild populations. Is that true?

Any trade in tiger parts, whether legal or illegal, perpetuates demand for tiger products and keeps poachers in business. Despite the increase in Asia’s commercial captive breeding facilities in the past decade and the surplus of captive-bred tigers in the marketplace, poaching of wild tigers continues unabated. There is no evidence that farming tigers takes the pressure off of wild populations and it may actually be hurting them.

Does Panthera endorse big cat sanctuaries?

We would like to see a day when there is no need for big cat sanctuaries in the United States, but for now, rescue centers and sanctuaries are a necessary consequence of our captive tiger trade. They provide a home for unwanted cats, for example, when someone buys a tiger cub as a pet but abandons it when it gets too big. These operations should be certified by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which requires, among other things, that the organization is non-profit, does not buy or sell cats, does not allow public contact with cats, and adheres to strict animal welfare standards.

Can captive breeding of big cats be beneficial to conservation?

Zoos accredited by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) contribute to the conservation of wild species through the Species Survival Program (SSP). The SSP requires all AZA zoos to carefully manage the breeding of captive tigers to maintain pure genetic strains of subspecies and to minimize inbreeding so that if ever needed, animals from these zoos would be genetically suitable for release into the wild. These zoos do not breed for profit and do not allow public contact with tigers. They also contribute to conservation through funding, education and on-the-ground work in tiger range.

tiger sitting
Any trade in tiger parts, whether legal or illegal, perpetuates demand for tiger products and keeps poachers in business. | © KARIN SAUCEDO

 Does Panthera support the Big Cat Public Safety Act?

The Big Cat Public Safety Act is a step in the right direction to greatly limit who can own a big cat in the U.S. and under what circumstances. Enacting a federal law to restrict the unchecked breeding and exploitation of big cats is long overdue in this country. If rigorously enforced, the Big Cat Public Safety Act will not only protect captive-bred cats and people but will help to dismantle an industry with insidious implications for wild tigers by shrinking the availability of tiger parts for the global illegal wildlife trade.

We believe the law could be strengthened by requiring that existing privately held cats are spayed and neutered, and requiring that all animals are chipped and their fate tracked, to help ensure they are not traded illegally.

Learn more about tigers.