Five things Tiger King doesn’t explain about captive tigers

Tiger King, Netflix’s new docuseries, is roaring with popularity. But behind the human melodrama, there is a frightful truth: tigers in captivity are a significant conservation issue that could impact the survival of this endangered species in the wild.

As you hunker down to binge watch Tiger King, or if already have and are looking for answers, here are five things you should know about captive tigers:

1.  There are more tigers in captivity than in the wild

Wild Bengal tiger hiding to catch her prey, Ranthambore National Park, India © Shutterstock / RAJU SONI / WWF

This majestic and powerful cat is on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 3,900 tigers surviving in just four per cent of their historic range. Shockingly, there are more tigers living in captivity than there are in the wild. Vast numbers are kept as exotic pets or bred for products in tiger farms around the world. In the U.S. alone, it’s estimated that there are around 5,000 captive tigers and only an estimated six per cent of them are in accredited zoos and facilities.

2. Captive tigers are a problem in Canada, too

Bengal tiger in the Kanha National Park, India © Sanskar Khedekar

While Tiger King explores the world of privately owned tigers in the U.S.— captive tigers living in people’s backyards, roadside exhibits and cub-petting parks — we know captive tigers are a reality in Canada, too.

3. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say exactly how many

Bengal tiger in grass habitat © / Andy Rouse / WWF

In Canada, there are a patchwork of laws that make it difficult to monitor big cat ownership or know with certainty just how many captive tigers there are in our country. Tigers are listed under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which means specific permits, licences and supporting documents are needed to bring a tiger into Canada. However, once inside the country, there is no one agency or level of government that tracks these tigers and their cubs.

Almost all provinces and cities have laws about who can own an exotic pet or outright bans; however, more systematic oversight is needed.

4. Breeding tigers in captivity is not conservation

Close up portrait of a tiger cub in Ranthambore tiger reserve, India. © Richard Barrett / WWF-UK

Public encounters with tiger cubs are popular, incredibly lucrative and provide a strong incentive to breed captive tigers to maintain a continuous supply of cubs for entertainment. However, many of these private tiger owners aren’t properly trained to care for tigers, — putting both the tigers and the public at risk. After years of enduring unhealthy human contact, confined spaces, poor diets or health issues from inbreeding, these tigers cannot be released into the wild to support population growth.

Captive breeding programs managed by accredited zoos can positively benefit species if they are part of a conservation management plan. Above all, conservation efforts need to focus on recovering wild populations across their natural range and protecting and restoring their habitat.

5. The exotic pet industry helps fuel the illegal wildlife trade

Bengal tiger © Ranjan Ramchandani / WWF

The demand for cubs in petting parks and private zoos in North America means owners must constantly breed more tigers. Tigers that have grown too large for public contact, and thus are less profitable and more expensive to house, can easily be exploited and pushed into the illegal wildlife trade. If that happens, their availability would help sustain a market that also drives the poaching and capture of tigers in the wild.

We can’t lose our tigers

Learn more about WWF’s work to double the number of wild tigers by 2022. To help support our efforts to keep tigers wild, consider virtually adopting one today.