"Tiger King" would have been more worrisome if he had focused on the big cat trade

"Albino" tigers are often only captive individuals bred for specific and atypical characteristics.

"Albino" tigers are often only captive individuals bred for specific and atypical characteristics. (Uriel Sobaranes / Unsplash /)

This story originally appeared on The conversation.

Netflix's new docuseries Tiger king takes viewers into the strange world of big cat collectors. Starring quirky characters with names like Joe Exotic and Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, the series tackles polygamy, addiction and personality cults, while exploring a mysterious disappearance and murder on account.

At Allison Skidmore, Ph.D. candidate for the University of California at Santa Cruz, who studies wildlife trafficking, the documentary did not draw enough attention to the scourge big cats in captivity.

A former park warden, Skidmore began studying the issue in the United States after the infamous death of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe in 2015. She was shocked to learn how little surveillance there was in the USA. We asked her about the legality, the incentives and the ease of buying and selling tigers.

How many captive tigers are in the United States?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. The vast majority of captive tigers are cross hybrids, so they are not identified as members of any of the six tiger subspeciesthe Bengal tiger, the Amur tiger, the South China tiger, the Sumatran tiger, the Indochinese tiger and the Malaysian tiger. Instead, they are classified as "generic".

Less than 5%or less than 350captive tigers are managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a non-profit organization that serves as an accreditation body in the United States. They ensure that accredited facilities meet higher standards of animal care than those required by law.

All the others are private tigers, which means they don't belong to one of the 236 institutions sponsored by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. These are considered generic and do not fall under federal supervision.

There is no legal obligation to register these generic tigers, nor a comprehensive national database to track and monitor them. The most educated guess estimates the number of tigers at around 10,000 in the United States. It is estimated that the global population of captive tigers could reach 25,000.

In comparison, there are less than 4,000 tigers in the wildagainst 100,000 a century ago.

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<caption>The new docu series <Tiger King> gives viewers an overview of the poorly regulated exotic animal trade in the United States. (Netflix /)</caption>
<p>How do tigers change hands?</p>
<p>The Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora prevent the importation of wild tigers. Thus, all tigers in the United States were born in captivity, with the rare exception of an orphaned wild cub that may end up in a zoo.</p>
<p>Only purebred tigers which are one of the six definitive subspecies are taken into account; these are the tigers you see in places like the Smithsonian National Zoo and usually belong to the Species Survival Plan, a captive breeding program designed to regulate the exchange of specific endangered species between zoos members in order to maintain genetic diversity.</p>
<p>All other tigers are found in zoos, sanctuaries, carnivals, animal parks, exhibits and private homes that are not licensed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They can change hands in different ways, from online markets to auctions of exotic animals. They can be purchased for as little as $ 800 to $ 2,000 for a cub and $ 200 to $ 500 for an adult, which is cheaper than many purebred puppies.</p>
<p>Can I legally buy a tiger?</p>
<p>The United States is plagued by complicated and vague laws regarding tiger ownership.</p>
<p>However, no federal law or regulation expressly prohibits private ownership of tigers. State and local jurisdictions have received this power, and some prohibit or require permits. Thirty-two states have bans or partial bans, and 14 states allow property with a simple license or permit. Four states <b>–</b>Alabama, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Nevada<b>–</b>have no form of oversight or regulation.</p>
<p>There is a lack of a comprehensive and consistent regulatory framework, and even in states that prohibit private property, there are gaps. For example, in all states except three, owners can apply for what is called a "federal exhibitor license", which is remarkably inexpensive and easy to obtain and which bypasses national or local laws more strict in force.</p>
<p>You now need a permit to transport tigers across national lines, but there is still no permit required for intra-state travel.</p>
<p>What is there for owners?</p>
<p>Some see it as a business venture, while others say they care about conservation. I consider that this latter reason is not sincere.</p>
<p>Many facilities present themselves as wildlife refuges or sanctuaries. These places frame their breeding and display practices as stewardship, as if they were contributing to the survival of an endangered animal. The reality is that no captive tiger has ever been released into the wild, so it's not as if these facilities could increase wild populations. A true sanctuary or refuge should have a strict policy of non-breeding or manipulation, and should have education programs dedicated to promoting conservation.</p>
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Bottle feeding in a "pseudo-sanctuary" in southern California. (Allison Skidmore /)

In the end, tigers are big money makers, especially small tigers. The Animal Welfare Act allows babies from 8 to 12 weeks old. People pay $ 100 to $ 700 to pet, bottle feed, swim with or take a photo with a cub.

None of these benefits go to the conservation of wild tigers, and this small window of opportunity for direct public contact means that exhibitors must continually breed tigers to maintain a constant supply of cubs.

The value of the cubs decreases considerably after 12 weeks. Where are all these surplus tigers going? Unfortunately, due to a lack of regulatory oversight, it is difficult to know.

Since many states do not report their live tigers, there is also no oversight regarding the reporting and disposal of dead tigers. Wildlife criminologists fear that these tigers could easily end up on the black market where their parts can add up to $ 70,000. There is evidence of captive American tigers linked to internal black market trade: in 2003, an owner of a tiger "rescue" facility had 90 dead tigers in freezers on his property. And in 2001, a covert investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in prosecutions of 16 people for the purchase, sale and slaughter of 19 tigers.

What role do social media play?

Posing with tigers on social media platforms like Instagram and on dating apps has become a huge problem. Not only can it pose a risk to the health and safety of humans and the tiger, but it also promotes a false narrative.

If you see thousands of photos of people with captive tigers, this masks the real problem of endangered tigers in the wild. Some might wonder if tigers are really so endangered if they are so easy to pose.

The reality of the wild tiger's plight has become hidden behind the pomp and pageantry of social media. This marginalizes meaningful ideas about conservation and the true status of tigers as one of the most endangered big cats.

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