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 subspecies–the 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 350–captive 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 wild–against 100,000 a century ago.
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.