Why does the new law on tigers matter? There are more in the US than in the wild

The U.S. just sent a powerful example to the world about our commitment to the protection of tigers, and to the broader goal of conserving and restoring nature and biodiversity across the globe. On Tuesday, President Biden signed into law the Big Cat Public Safety Act Law, which will provide much-needed oversight of captive tigers in the U.S., including a ban on public contact that will eliminate practices like photo ops and cub petting. This hard-earned victory, over a decade in the making, is a testament to the fact that — with the right amount of patience and partnership — meaningful, lasting, large-scale conservation is possible.  

There’s value in savoring moments like this, if only to remind ourselves that we’re capable of achieving significant wins, because frankly, it’s all too easy to become intimidated into inaction by the sheer scale and scope of the environmental challenges we face. Right now, the planet is losing animal and plant species at a rate not seen since the demise of the dinosaurs. It’s staggering to think that human development practices and overexploitation of resources can drive similar levels of species loss as an asteroid 66 million years ago — but the flipside of that is we have the potential to stop the damage we’re doing and even repair much of it as well.  

For proof, look no further than the global turnaround for tigers. A decade ago, tigers were on the brink of extinction due to relentless poaching, retaliatory killings and habitat loss, with their total number in the wild having fallen from roughly 100,000 to a mere 3,200 in only a century. Today, that number is about 4,500 and climbing, signaling a new hope for this iconic species.   

Thanks to concerted efforts by conservation groups and governments, wild tiger populations are stable or rising in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Russia and China. And yet, tigers remain in crisis in other parts of the world, most notably Southeast Asia. The future of wild tigers is far from certain, which means the fight to save them is far from over.   

One key front in that struggle is the problem of captive tigers, and the role they play in driving the demand for tigers and tiger parts. About 8,000 tigers are currently housed in tiger farms in Asia, predominately in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. These tiger farms are reportedly sources for the illegal, international trade in tigers and tiger parts — mostly their bones and skins. Unfortunately, U.S. efforts to shine a light on this issue have been hampered by a glaring problem: the massive unregulated captive tiger population within our own borders.   

My organization estimates there are 5,000 captive tigers in the U.S., a number second only to China’s and far more than the total global population of tigers in the wild. Without sufficient federal regulations, U.S. captive tigers have gone largely unmonitored, leaving unanswered questions as to who owns them, when they are sold or traded, and what becomes of their valuable parts when they die. And until now, the biggest lingering question has been: who are we to tell other countries to rein in their tiger farms when we have yet to get our own house in order? With the signing of the Big Cat Public Safety Act into law, we’ve finally answered that question. The U.S. is officially walking the walk, providing us with the credibility to ask our fellow nations to do the same.  

But how much does the power of our example really have to affect change, you might ask? Consider another example from earlier this decade, when the U.S. government responded to the growing poaching crisis in Africa by tightening its regulations on the domestic trade in elephant ivory. In the wake of that action, other nations followed suit, most notably China, which was the single largest domestic market for ivory in the world. In this instance, U.S. leadership at home succeeded in catalyzing a chain of reforms around the world, producing massive benefits for Africa’s beleaguered elephant populations.   

The Big Cat Public Safety Act has the same potential to drive change across the globe. But to do so, it’s imperative that the U.S. government ensure that this landmark law is more than just words on paper, by providing the resources needed to truly enforce it. There are additional steps we can and should take to build on this progress, such as pairing the diplomatic pressure we place on other nations with political, technical and financial support to help them extend legal protections and phase out tiger farms within their borders. In addition to this kind of multilateral engagement, we should also tap into the power of existing global frameworks like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to ensure tigers are bred only at a level supportive to conservation — and not for trade in their parts and products.   

We all benefit from broader protections for tigers and the long-awaited signing of the Big Cat Public Safety Act into law merits celebration. Let’s seize the moment, ride the renewed momentum that comes with clear victories such as this one, and continue the fight to deliver results for people and nature.  

Leigh Henry is the director of Wildlife Policy at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 

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