Let’s Talk Tigers (in the time of Tiger King)

by Lou Lunte SCA ‘77, ‘78; Alumni Council member

How many captive tigers are there in the U.S?  If you joined SCA’s Fifth Friday presentation on July 31st you might have been shocked — like I was — to learn there are an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 captive tigers in the U.S., far exceeding the 3,000 wild tigers in India. You would have also learned only about 300 of those captive tigers are held by accredited entities, such as professionally managed zoos.

The energetic presentation was given by SCA alum Sarika Khanwilkar, who is a U.W. Fulbright student to India, PhD student at Columbia University and founder of Wild Tiger. Sarika is passionate about tiger conservation and is trying to dispel the myths about most captive tiger programs around the world, in particularly, those in the United States. The issue has taken on new resonance given the popularity of the Netflix documentary, Tiger King.

Sarika explained that many people incorrectly believe that breeding tigers in captivity saves wild tigers and reduces poaching pressure on wild tigers. However, in practice the opposite is true - captive tigers supply the illegal trade and provide human-bred tigers for human consumption,” which creates demand for wild tigers and their parts.

The vast majority of captive tigers in the U.S. are bred for unusual traits to enhance their appeal in roadside shows and not to maintain genetic diversity; therefore they have no conservation value. Sadly, many roadside tiger shows provide “tiger cub petting”, which only works with young cubs. Once they get to be teenagers or adults they are of little value and are often sold into the illegal trade.

What can we do? There is currently no federal law that prohibits or regulates breeding or private ownership of tigers and state and local laws vary widely. This year, the US Congress will vote on whether to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act. If adopted as a federal law, it would ban pet tiger ownership and public cub handling, which is driving tiger breeding in the US. Please call your reprentative to let him or her know that you support this bill and they should too.

If you are interested in joining our next Fifth Friday on October 30, please register here. The topic will be environmental justice and youth activism.