Kate on Conservation

The Tiger Kings in Europe


Netflix’s controversial series Tiger King has sparked discussions around the globe. The world has been introduced to tiger breeders Joe Exotic, Jeff Lowe and Doc Antle, united by their obsession with big cats and activities exploiting the animals for profit and attention.

Tiger King paints a worrying picture regarding the lack of regulation for keeping tigers and other big cats.

Whilst the docu-series reveals more tigers could be living in captivity in the United States (estimated 7,000) than there are in the wild (roughly 3,900); the picture is equally concerning in Europe.

The latest research highlights that the exact number of captive tigers is unknown by the relevant authorities.

Tiger cub at Moskauer Circus, Dortmund, Germany.

For several months, global animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS, investigated the legal and illegal trade flows across Europe — using research on trade data and seizures, as well as through requests to authorities to share the numbers of tigers kept in captivity in zoos, sanctuaries and at private homes.

Kieran Harkin, International Head of Programmes for Wild Animals in Trade at FOUR PAWS, explains: “Captive tigers are treated as a commodity, being passed around by individuals happy to breed, exploit and trade them. Most member states don’t keep a central registration, official papers are easily falsified, or new cubs are not registered at all”.

Tiger Noa at Fauna y Acción Park, Spain, where tourists can walk her on a leash and take pictures with her.

New report unveils out-of-control captive tiger trade

The subsequent report by FOUR PAWS has revealed a shocking discrepancy between the European authorities’ figures of captive tigers, and the results of the charity’s recent investigation.

FOUR PAWS estimates 1,600 tigers live in captivity across Europe — far more than the 913 suspected by authorities.

This highlights the gaps in data pertaining to the numbers of big cats being born, and what happens to them during their lifetime and after they die.

European Wildlife Tourism Investigation

Europe’s Tiger King equivalent

Throughout the EU, it is legal to breed and commercially trade tigers both within Europe and for export around the world — allowing for some of the shocking situations we’ve seen in the ’Tiger King’ series.

In many countries, private keeping and/or use of wild animals in circuses is also still allowed. Many of which are kept in poor conditions and made to endure cruel treatment.

  • It is legal to keep tigers privately in Ireland, UK, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Estonia, North Macedonia, Malta and Luxembourg.
  • It is legal to keep tigers in circuses in Italy, Poland and Lithuania.
  • It is legal to keep tigers privately AND in circuses in Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Montenegro, Albania, Ukraine and Turkey.
Spain, Los Santos de la Humosa | 2019 08 17 | Tiger Noa being led on a leash by a tourist at Fauna y Acción Park, Spain.
Tiger Noa being led on a leash by a tourist at Fauna y Acción Park, Spain.

Data gaps and uncertain numbers

Following Freedom of Information requests to 28 EU member states and eight neighbouring countries to obtain information on tiger numbers, only 17 countries out of 36 were able to share their statistics of tigers kept in zoos, private homes, circuses and sanctuaries.

To gather tiger numbers of 36 European countries, a total of 641 authorities (national/regional/local) had to be contacted by FOUR PAWS and many were unable to share any data despite numerous requests.

With estimations of 400 tigers in Italy alone, the conservative total of 913 tigers revealed via the Freedom of Information requests is brought into question.

“This new report paints a startling picture as to the inability of authorities to answer the simple question of how many captive tigers there are in their country,” Member of the European Parliament, Martin Hojsík said.

tiger on a lead
The captive-born tiger is currently not offered the same protection as wild tigers.

Without effective record-keeping of captive tiger numbers in EU member states and control on the trade within the EU, cases of illegal trade and subsequent cruelty will continue to flourish.

Wild tiger populations will profit from commercial tiger trade ban

As a first step in controlling and regulating the tiger trade, FOUR PAWS recommends the issuing of an EU guidance document proposing member states suspend the export and re-export of live tigers and tiger parts or derivatives — with exceptions in the case of Legitimate zoos or sanctuaries.

It is then suggested that a comprehensive ban on commercial tiger trade should follow.

“A commercial trade ban will stop traders and breeders profiting from big cats across Europe and indirectly contribute to the recovery of wild tiger populations worldwide”, Harkin concludes.

It seems we must take the issue of tiger trade and profiteering seriously in Europe if we are to avoid our own Tiger King horror story.

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