A Major Loophole In The Tiger Trade Is Closing, But It's Not Enough To Curb Trafficking

Conservation experts say Congress needs to legislate the abolition of private ownership of tigers in the U.S.
A white tiger at Big Cat Rescue in Florida.
A white tiger at Big Cat Rescue in Florida.

A major loophole in the regulation of America's tiger population went into effect Friday, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed the loophole last month. Mixed-breed, or "generic," captive tigers will be subject to the same oversight as pure-bred tigers, which are protected by legislation.

All tigers will now be subject to the Endangered Species Act and subject to the highest level of national regulation. Generic tigers that are being bought and sold across state lines tigers will need to be registered under the Captive-bred Wildlife Registration program.

The immediate effects of this action will be to curb the sale of tigers across state lines and to deter those who illegally traffic in tigers or tiger parts abroad, according to Kate Dylewsky, a spokesperson for the animal advocacy group Born Free USA. "But it will probably have no effect whatsoever on private ownership," she told The Huffington Post.

As many as 5,000 tigers live in America, in peoples’ backyards, private zoos and breeding facilities -- far more than the 3,200 tigers left in the wild.

The unregulated trade in generic tigers for pets, private zoos and medicinal purposes, particularly in China, undermines tiger conservation efforts, says Dylewsky. The proliferation of privately-owned tigers makes it more likely that their parts end up in the lucrative international exotic animal trade, according to a 2008 report from TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. 

The possession of exotic animals is currently governed by an ineffective "patchwork" of state laws, according to Carney Anne Nasser of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. And private ownership (without exhibition or dealing) doesn't even require a USDA license.

According to several American wildlife activists, the gold standard in tiger regulation would be the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would almost entirely prohibit the private possession and breeding of big cats outside of zoos. 

BCSA was introduced in the House last summer, and a companion Senate bill was introduced in February. However, it took five years for FWS to count generic tigers as endangered (after first proposing the broader regulation in 2011), so a comprehensive bill may take years to pass.

"The political climate is very difficult this year," Dylewsky said. "There's absolutely appetite for this at the federal level, but it's honestly hard for any kind of bill to pass right now." She said there is bipartisan support for the action, although some Republicans prefer that it remain a state issue out of a general distaste for federal regulation. 

If the bill passes in Congress, it will be illegal for Americans to buy big cats for private ownership. Current owners, however, will be allowed to keep their tigers, but will have to register them. They’ll also be prohibited from breeding them or acquiring others.

A cohesive federal ruling like BCSA is the only foreseeable way to curb the private tiger population, Susan Bass of Big Cat Rescue told HuffPost. "You wouldn't believe how easy it is to own a tiger in America. In many states, all you need is a $40 'exhibitor license,'" she said. "It's easier to buy a tiger than adopt a puppy."