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There Are More Domestic Tigers in the U.S. Than Wild Ones in the Jungle

For the first time in decades, the global population of wild tigers is rising, but thousands more live in captivity in the United States.

A Siberian Tiger rests on a log in its enclosure at the zoo in Muenster, western Germany, on August 18, 2014. AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ        (Photo credit should read )
A Siberian Tiger rests on a log in its enclosure at the zoo in Muenster, western Germany, on August 18, 2014. AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ (Photo credit should read )

Tigers — the real feline kings and queens of the jungle — are making a comeback after decades of decline. Their numbers in the wild have rebounded from an all-time low of 3,200 in 2010 to nearly 3,900 now, according to a new estimate by the World Wildlife Fund, a conservationist group.

But that still pales in comparison to how many more can be found prowling the backyards of exotic pet enthusiasts.

In the United States alone, as many as 10,000 tigers may live in captivity. Gavin Shire, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told Foreign Policy it’s impossible to pin down just how many there are currently, because owners are not required to register their tigers unless they intend to trade them across state borders.

The conservative estimate is around 5,000 tigers in U.S. captivity, but “any number we have is going to fall far short of the actual figure,” Shire said. Out of those, only around 350 are in accredited zoos, according to the WWF.

It’s a big victory for groups like the WWF that have spent years trying to conserve tigers see more of them stalking natural habitats in Russia’s snow forests or the jungles of Southeast Asia.  

Yet weak federal guidelines for tiger regulation in the United States have given way to a patchwork of state rules. Six states — North and South Carolina, Wisconsin, Nevada, Alabama, and West Virginia — don’t regulate ownership whatsoever; 14 require a permit; and 30 prohibit tiger ownership entirely.

Last week, Fish and Wildlife closed a loophole allowing mixed-breed or “generic” tigers to be sold commercially across state lines. But the new rule doesn’t stop U.S. citizens from breeding and selling them, typically at $2,500 for a cub, within their home states.

Although adored for their velvety striped fur and playfulness, tigers are also apex predators that, if raised in the wild and given the chance, would eat humans for breakfast. Big Cat Rescue, an activist group in the United States, has tallied hundreds of mauling incidents and escapes, which have left 23 people and 146 big cats — including lions, leopards, and tigers — dead since 1990.

This isn’t only happening in the United States. In Asia, tiger parts, from the nose down to the tail, are believed to cure an exhaustive list of health problems. In addition to their medicinal properties, Chinese elites use tiger products to boast their wealth. A bottle of tiger wine, rice liquor steeped with tiger bone, can cost anywhere from $80 to $5,000. And tiger pelts, another social status symbol, can easily run for tens of thousands of dollars.

Photo credit: PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

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