US strengthens protections for captive tigers

In this photo provided by the Cincinnati Zoo's Botanical Garden, a captive tiger that is being protected under a rule issued by Fish and Wildlife Service. (AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Tuesday took steps to strengthen protections for captive tigers held in backyards and private breeding facilities.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is finalizing a rule declaring that privately-owned “generic” tigers are no longer exempt from permitting requirements under the Endangered Species Act that apply to purebred tigers at large zoos. Generic tigers are animals of unknown genetic background or crosses between different subspecies of tigers.

Wildlife experts estimate that as many as 5,000 generic tigers are being held in backyards, private animal parks and breeding facilities across the country — 10 times as many as reside in accredited zoos and other large institutions.

The new rule requires that anyone selling tigers across state lines obtain a permit or register under a federal wildlife registration program.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the rule should help reduce illegal trafficking in tigers and promote tiger conservation.

“Removing the loophole that enabled some tigers to be sold for purposes that do not benefit tigers in the wild will strengthen protections for these magnificent creatures and help reduce the trade in tigers that is so detrimental to wild populations,” Ashe said, adding that the rule “will be a positive driver for tiger conservation.”

Wild tigers are under severe threat from habitat loss and the demand for tiger bones and other body parts used in traditional Asian medicines.

Once abundant throughout Asia, today there are only 3,000 to 5,000 wild tigers in small fragmented groups. Tigers are protected as endangered in the United States and internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Most zoo tigers are pure subspecies such as Siberian or Bengal tigers, but thousands more are considered generic. Some animals are featured in traveling zoos and animal parks or used for photo opportunities with tiger cubs. The number of captive tigers in the United States likely exceeds those found in the wild, although exact totals are unknown.

While the new rule does not prevent individuals from owning generic tigers, extending the permitting or registration requirement to all tigers strengthens efforts to address illegal wildlife trade, both domestically and internationally, Ashe said.

Leigh Henry, senior policy adviser for the World Wildlife Fund, called the new rule a critical first step toward ensuring that tigers bred in the U.S. don’t fuel the illegal trade that drives poaching of wild tigers overseas.

“By tightening regulations around captive tigers, the U.S. is making it harder for captive-bred tigers to filter into and stimulate the black market that threatens wild tigers in Asia,” Henry said. The new rule “is another sign that the Obama administration takes wildlife crime seriously,” she added.

The final rule is set to be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday and take effect May 6.