New study highlights hidden scale of U.S. illegal tiger trade

By Carolyn Cowan

  • A new study highlights the previously underestimated role of the U.S. in the illegal tiger trade: According to newly compiled seizure data, tiger trafficking in the U.S. from 2003 to 2012 corresponded to almost half of the global tiger trade reported for that period in prior studies.
  • By analyzing hundreds of U.S. tiger trafficking incidents, the researchers uncovered noteworthy routes from China and Vietnam into the country, with the vast majority of seizures involving traditional medicines.
  • They also found significant legal trade in captive-bred tigers into the country, mainly for use in roadside zoos and circuses; experts say the patchwork of U.S. federal, state and local laws that govern the roughly 5,000 captive tigers in the country is insufficient to safeguard them from the illegal trade.
  • Experts are calling on U.S. legislators to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bill that would improve the welfare and protection of tigers in captivity and therefore strengthen the country’s integrity on international tiger conservation matters.

When the Netflix documentary series Tiger King aired in 2020, it sparked widespread discussions about the number of captive tigers in the U.S. Subsequently, many people were startled to find that more tigers live in captivity in U.S. backyards, roadside zoos and breeding facilities than remain in the wild globally. But few were aware of the scale of the trade in tigers and their body parts in the country.

Now, a study published in Conservation Science and Practice highlights the previously underestimated role of the U.S. in the illegal tiger trade. Researchers investigating U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) seizure data from 2003 to 2012 showed that the number of tiger trafficking incidents in the country was equivalent to almost half of the previously reported global illegal tiger trade during that period.

The world’s estimated 3,900 remaining wild tigers are seriously threatened by poaching to supply the illegal trade in their skins, bones and other body parts that are used in tiger-based traditional medicines and ornaments.

“We had no idea of the volume of tigers that were legally or illegally being moved across U.S. borders, although the global nature of the trade was known,” Monique Sosnowski, a doctoral candidate at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and co-author of the study, told Mongabay. “The U.S. is often idealized as a country that does not suffer from wildlife trafficking issues, but the data paints a different picture for the case of tigers.”

A tiger living in Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, India, a country with the largest population of wild tigers. Image courtesy of Sarika Khanwilkar

Hidden scale of trade

Using the USFWS data, the researchers identified a total of 292 seizure incidents in the U.S. between 2003 and 2012 — significantly higher than previously reported levels. A prior study based on data from media reports, government agencies and NGOs only identified six such incidents in the U.S., out of a global total of 624 seizures during the same period.

One “highly concerning” finding was that wild tigers were listed as a source of roughly two-thirds of confiscated products, according to Sarika Khanwilkar, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and lead author of the new study.

The researchers found that shipments entered the U.S. from 24 countries, although they identified “noteworthy routes” from China and Vietnam.

Khanwilkar, who is also the founder of tiger conservation nonprofit Wild Tiger, said she was surprised by the paucity of imports from India, home to the world’s largest wild tiger population. However, she noted that many records lacked a clear country of origin, so trade routes from India cannot be completely ruled out.

Tiger parts and trophies and other wildlife seized in the U.S. by the USFWS. Image by Steve Winter

Traditional medicines prevalent

Tiger-based traditional medicines, such as pills, tiger bone wine and analgesic plasters, were ubiquitous among the confiscated products. Overall, more than 18,500 medicinal products, accounting for roughly 80% of all items, were impounded by the USFWS during the study period.

The prominence of medicinal products could be explained by customs agents and wildlife inspectors exercising the Rhino and Tiger Product Labeling Act (1998), which allows for seizures of products that list rhino or tiger as ingredients, regardless of whether their illicit contents are proven.

Furthermore, the large volumes of tiger-based traditional medicines confiscated between 2003 and 2012 reflect the tail end of a time when the U.S. was a significant importer of tiger-based traditional medicine products, Crawford Allan, senior director for wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC at WWF. “It was a well-known issue of concern,” Allan, who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay in an email, “but efforts were put in place to help tackle it.”

Over the ensuing 10 years, efforts to reform product labeling and to reduce demand through awareness campaigns worked well, and trade in such products has declined significantly.

“But [the decline] does not mean that there is no tiger trade in the US; it does persist but on a much lower level than 10-20 years ago,” Allan said. “The trafficking in bones, teeth, skulls, meat, furs, and medicines is sadly still a threat to tigers, but the main markets driving demand are Asia-based.”

Various products seized in the U.S. by the USFWS, including tiger bone wine, medicinal products, skins and whole cubs. Image by Steve Winter

Potential for misinterpretation

Allan cautioned against drawing conclusions about the overall scale of the tiger trade in the U.S from seizure data. He said comparatively high rates of reporting and detection of illegal imports in the U.S. could skew the data compared to other countries that do not prioritize or lack the resources to monitor wildlife trafficking.

“[The] U.S. is one of the few countries that undertake comprehensive data collection of wildlife seizures nationally and allows public access to the data. Thus it is not realistic to compare the U.S. data to what is reported for the rest of the world,” Allan said.

Calculating the actual impact of the trade on wild tiger populations is also a major challenge because processed products, such as traditional medicines, could be derived from single or multiple individuals, according to Allan.

Nonetheless, despite these limitations, seizure records are “the best possible data that is currently available,” Sosnowski said, and the sheer volume of confiscated tiger imports to the U.S. during the study period is undisputable.

Captive tiger
A captive tiger behind bars; more than 8,000 tigers are kept in captivity in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, twice the number of tigers left in the wild globally. Image by liux2x via Pixabay

Captive tigers at risk

The recent study also investigated the scale of the legal trade in tigers and their parts into the U.S. The researchers uncovered a total of 283 CITES permits dating from 2003 to 2012, including 49 for the legal import of live captive-bred tigers that were mainly being brought into the country for use as exhibits in roadside zoos or circuses.

While tigers are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the legality framework around their captivity and trade is ambiguous, and regulations governing the welfare and status of the roughly 5,000 tigers held in captivity in the U.S. vary widely from state to state.

“There is a lack of data to conclusively say that captive tigers in the U.S. are fueling illegal international trade,” Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy at WWF, told Mongabay in an email. “However, the existing patchwork of federal, state and local laws is not sufficient to prevent that from happening. No one government agency monitors and tracks where all of these tigers are, who owns them, when they’re sold and traded, or what happens to their valuable parts when they die.”

Henry, who was not involved in the recent study, added that these legislative gray areas affect the U.S.’s influence on matters outside its borders: “[T]he lack of strong regulation for privately owned tigers and other big cats in the U.S. weakens its voice in advocating for tiger conservation with tiger range countries.”

For example, international and U.S.-based tiger experts are calling for an end to tiger farming, which affects more than 8,000 tigers in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The animals are raised exclusively for commercial purposes in home basements, tourism venues and battery-farm operations. Critics say tiger farming undermines conservation efforts by facilitating laundering of wild animals and perpetuating the illegal wildlife trade.

“It is difficult to influence tiger range countries to clamp down on trade and phase out tiger farms when there is such a large captive tiger population here in our own backyard,” Henry said, “and we cannot definitively say the U.S. is not contributing to these problems.”

To address the legislative shortcomings, advocates in the U.S. have proposed the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would require federal permits for all big cats and prohibit public contact with cubs, thereby reducing incentives for breeding and improving animal welfare. If legislators pass the bill, it would be a “huge step” toward ensuring U.S. captive tigers and their parts do not enter the illegal trade, according to Henry.

“The Big Cat Public Safety Act … has been reintroduced in the House and Senate in the 117th Congress,” Henry said. “WWF encourages both chambers to now do their part to make sure that this important bill becomes law.”

Disclosure: One of the study authors, Sharon Guynup, has contributed reporting to Mongabay on a freelance basis.

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