Why Captive Tigers Can’t Be Reintroduced to the Wild | WIRED

published on July 3, 2020

– [John] These tigers
that they're producing

are worthless to the wild

They're not genetically fit,
they're not behaviorally fit

to be reintroduced to the wild

– [Matt] Netflix's "The Tiger King:

"Murder, Mayhem and Madness"
gives viewers a look

into the world of big
cat ownership in America,

along with murder plots and
unironic leather fringe

But in the drama, it's easy to lose sight

of what's actually happening

Big cats being bred, sold, and treated

as if they were everyday pets

And these captive-bred animals
will never be released

– They're no more useful
to tigers in the wild

than domestic dogs are
to wolves in the wild

– To find out what captive breeding

does to these endangered
and threatened animals,

we talked to Dr John
Goodrich, a chief scientist

at Panthera, the global wildcat
conservation organization

Before we get into the
problems of captive breeding,

we hear the figure a lot that there are

more tigers in captivity
in the United States

than there are actually
living in the wild

I was wondering if
there's any truth in it

How hard is it to quantify actually

how many tigers are here, given
that this is a black market?

– You hear the number
five to 10,000 tigers

in captivity in the United States

Nobody really knows, but it's probably

in the right order of magnitude,

'cause there's only about
4,000 tigers left in the wild

But, the problem is there's
no tracking of these tigers

Every single tiger should
be identified and tracked

from its birth to its death

It's not a hard thing to do

Tigers are walking barcodes

Each one is identified
individually by their stripes

It's like a fingerprint

– And one of the arguments that
these captive breeders make

is that, you know, if we're
having populations crash

in the wild, why not
breed them in captivity

and reintroduce them?

Why is that wrong-headed?

– There's two things that happen

with these captive-bred
tigers, and they're opposites

One is inbreeding, low genetic diversity,

and that's primarily in white tigers

All white tigers in captivity come from

a single white tiger captured
in India decades ago

So, you can imagine those
tigers are very inbred

But then the opposite happens,

where there's interbreeding
among subspecies of tigers,

and they even hybridize tigers
with lions and other species

So, that makes these sort of genetic mutts

that are not of any use
whatsoever in conservation

There are a number of different

extant sub-species of tigers in the wild

There's the Siberian tiger up
in Russia and Northern China,

Indochinese tiger in Thailand,

Malay tiger in Malasia,
Sumatran tiger in Indonesia,

and then the Bengal tiger in South Asia

They have different adaptations

to their unique environments

So, you wouldn't wanna take a
Siberian tiger, for example,

and reintroduce it, you know,
from the colds of Russia

to hot tropics of India or Sumatra

Likewise, you wouldn't wanna take

a tiger that's either been
severely inbred from captivity,

or outbred, some of these hybrids,

and reintroduce it and
pollute the genetics

of the existing wild populations

– Beyond the genetics, why
would it be so problematic

to reintroduce a tiger raised
in captivity into the wild,

just based on the behaviors
that it had developed

as it has grown up

– Especially some of these
tigers from petting zoos,

or even some of the rescue centers,

they have an awful lot
of exposure to people

People are coming by,
visiting them every day,

people are feeding them every day,

and they learn to
associate people with food,

and they associate people with
play and all sorts of things

So, if you were to release
one of those tigers

into the wild, in India, for example,

where you might have hundreds
of people per square mile

surrounding the national
park or tiger reserve

where you've released
them, you can imagine,

those tigers are just
gonna go right to people

looking for food, looking
for entertainment, whatever

And then you'd have a big
problem on your hands

So, people and tigers don't mix well

Tigers are too big and too dangerous

– Are conservation groups breeding tigers

in a certain way such that
they can be reintroduced

to the wild and not corrupt the gene pool?

– Zoos that are accredited by AZA,

the Association for Zoos and
Aquariums, in North America,

are required to be part of what they call

the Species Survival Program

So, any tigers in those
zoos are bred very carefully

to maintain their genetics,

to maintain their subspecies status,

but also to guard against inbreeding

Theoretically, we could
take tigers from zoos,

build a captive breeding center,

and then start to breed tigers
so that cubs were produced

that were exposed to their
natural wild habitat,

exposed to natural prey, and hopefully

could eventually be
reintroduced into the wild

But we usually don't wanna get there

You know, that's the
absolute last-ditch effort,

where if it comes to reintroductions,

it's a bit of a Hail Mary

– How does a program at a zoo
that is maintaining tigers

different from what we're seeing

in a show like "Tiger King"?

– First, zoos are not
breeding tigers for sale

They are breeding tigers to maintain

that genetic stock in captivity

These petting zoos are
breeding tigers to make money

So, they're trying to pump
out as many cubs as they can,

remember, the cubs are
only worth anything to them

in the petting zoo until
they're about four months old,

and then they become too dangerous

for the public to handle

What happens to all those tigers?

We don't know

That's a big concern

Tigers breed really well in captivity

So, it's easy for people
to take them, breed them,

produce more tigers, and everybody wants

that selfie with a tiger cub

So, that compounds the problem,

but you can imagine this animal, you know,

in the wild, tigers need anywhere

from 10 to hundreds of square miles

that they cover over
the course of the year,

their home range, and
you can imagine an animal

that should be wandering
over that kind of area

in lush forests being
kept in a small cage,

they don't do too well

You know, so one of the
things the accredited zoos do,

beyond trying to having natural habitat

and large enough enclosures,
they do an awful lot

of enrichment where they're putting

different scents around
the cage every day,

giving the animals
different toys to play with,

different things to
explore, so the animals

are constantly stimulated
in ways they might

be stimulated in their natural habitat

– Can you walk us
through what conservation

actually looks like out in the wild?

– All tigers need is
lots of inviolate space

with good habitat, high prey densities,

and to be left alone by
people, and they thrive

Tigers are most threatened
by habitat loss,

and especially poaching

Tigers are poached because
they're extremely valuable

on the traditional medicine market

So, while the recipe for
tiger conservation is simple,

actually implementing it
can be pretty challenging

Tigers live in some of the most remote,

rugged, and difficult parts
of the world to access,

so the patrol teams that are out there

trying to protect tigers from poaching

have a really tough job ahead of them,

in just finding the poachers,

capturing the poachers,
and then, once captured,

you might be a week's walk into a forest,

you've gotta take them back out

So, it's a pretty challenging task

– And what about legal protections here

for tigers in the United States?

– So, tigers are on the United States

Endangered Species Act,
and that gives them

a certain amount of protection,

but what that means is they
can't be traded internationally,

and they can't be traded
across state borders

At the state level, many states have laws

against owning big cats
and other wildlife species,

but many states allow it openly

So, there is legislation
being pushed right now

to make it illegal for
private ownership of big cats

in the United States

– You know, well, what could
we do with those tigers?

Do we put them in better
homes in the United States?

Are there enough of those, given that

this black market is so big?

Would it be able to hold all of them?

– It's a really tough problem

If we were to pass legislation today

that banned ownership of tigers,

there's a number of
different ways it could go

You could start a phase-out period,

where maybe first these
places are all required

to spay and neuter their animals,

and then when their last
animal finally dies,

they close down

If we were to just close it down

and try to find homes
for all those tigers,

where are you gonna put them?

You know, there's a lot of rescue centers

around the country, most of
those are at capacity already,

so the next choice would
be to euthanize them

in the way we do with an awful lot

of our surplus dogs and cats,

and that of course would be tragic,

but the cost of maintaining these tigers

is also exorbitant

And, you know, for the
million dollars it costs

per year to run a rescue center,

we could protect so
many tigers in the wild

So, there's trade-offs too

It's a real moral dilemma

– Do you have any advice for as to

how people can be smarter
about finding good parks?

– It's pretty simple, actually

You can just look for zoos
that are accredited by the AZA,

and the AZA has them
listed on their website

If it's not on the list,

doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad zoo,

but then you'll need to dig deeper

I mean, if you get to
take selfies with a tiger,

if you get to touch them, then no

That's not a great establishment

– I was wondering if you had any insights

as to how you might be able to tell

if a tiger has been
mistreated in captivity

– Some obvious physical signs might be

a tiger that's extremely
thin or extremely fat,

or maybe shows some evidence of injuries

But beyond that, you can learn
a lot from their behavior

If a tiger looks peaceful and content,

it's probably peaceful and content

If it's pacing around its cage

and showing other kinds
of neurotic behaviors,

then it's probably in too small of a cage,

it's not receiving enough stimulus

– We are gonna know the
answer to this question,

but would a tiger ever make a good pet?

– Absolutely not

Think about having a 400-pound
cat with three-inch canines

and three-inch claws in your living room

or in your backyard, and
even a well-mannered,

completely non-aggressive individual,

obviously an animal that big
with that kind of weaponry

could hurt you without even trying to

[tiger roars]

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