As few as 3,200 tigers are left in the wild across Asia, down from 100,000 just a hundred years ago. But there are an estimated 5,000 captive tigers in the United States, and most are kept by private individuals, not zoos.
With more tigers in captivity in the United States than survive in the wild, the country needs a centralized federal database to monitor the big cats, the two groups advise.
"In addition to being a threat to communities, captive tigers in the U.S. are a ticking time bomb for the illegal wildlife trade," said Leigh Henry, WWF senior policy officer for Species Conservation.
Henry says that the illegal trade in products derived from captive tigers stimulates demand for body parts from wild tigers. The more demand there is, the more wild tigers are poached.
Miserable tiger in a backyard cage (Photo courtesy Animal Abuse 911)
"Demand for tiger parts and products is one of the leading threats to the continued survival of the species in the wild," Henry said. "A nationwide database is essential to ensure that captive cats don't end up in traditional folk medicine, tiger wine, or as somebody's hearth rug or wall hanging."
The captive tigers are often kept in deplorable conditions, particularly in states that do not have laws or regulations that require close monitoring or regulatory oversight, the groups warn. They suggest that anyone who knows of a captive tiger in distress could find out how to report it at Animal Abuse 911.
Eight states have no laws whatsoever on captive tigers, while 17 states allow the keeping of tigers by individuals with a state permit or registration.
Twenty-eight states have laws banning the possession of tigers in private collections.
Iowa, Oregon and Washington recently banned tiger possession but have systems in place to regulate tigers that were grandfathered in prior to enactment of the bans.
A host of exceptions exemptions, and loopholes to the laws that do exist makes it impossible for the federal agencies charged with implementing these laws to maintain a current inventory of how many tigers are in the country, where they are, who possesses them, when they die or how they are disposed of.
Lack of sufficient state or federal regulation makes it impossible to determine what happens to their body parts when they die - body parts that are highly prized on the black market in Asia.
WWF has published a new online tool that allows users to learn about their states' captive tiger regulations and how weak oversight puts wild tigers, captive tigers and human safety at risk.
Based on their findings, the two groups recommend that the United States establish a central reporting system and database for all captive tigers held within U.S. borders. There should be no exemptions or exceptions.
Any person or facility owning a tiger should report on the number of tigers held, births, deaths, mortality and transfer or sale, the groups recommend. All tiger deaths should be reported immediately and the carcasses disposed of through cremation by a licensed facility.
Finally the groups say state and federal law enforcement agencies should be provided with the financial resources to conduct undercover investigations to eliminate markets for tiger parts and detect international smuggling attempts.
"The United States government has been a global leader in promoting the conservation of tigers, but it also has a responsibility to manage the tigers in its own backyard to prevent them from entering illegal trade," Henry said. "By clamping down on this issue, we can better cooperate with other nations holding large numbers of captive tigers to prevent trade in these animals from threatening their wild counterparts."
In November, world leaders will gather at a Global Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia - the world's first global summit focused on saving a single species from extinction.
They will discuss a range-wide recovery plan for tigers that includes how to protect breeding populations, tiger landscapes and address poaching and international trade.
The goal of the summit is to double the number of wild tigers by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022.
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