Backyard tigers

October 20, 2010

ENVIRONMENT-TIGERS/Would you keep a tiger as a pet?

A puppy-sized tiger cub can be bought in the United States for as little as $200, and there are probably about 5,000 such backyard tigers across the country, about the same number of privately owned tigers in China, according to World Wildlife Fund.

That is far greater than the approximately 3,200 wild tigers worldwide, compared to the estimated 100,000 wild tigers a century ago. The growing number of these animals in captivity poses a threat to the species in the wild, WWF reports.

“People don’t realize when they buy a $200 tiger cub that it grows into a full-grown tiger, which means a huge enclosure and costs about $5000 a year just to feed,” says Leigh Henry, an animal conservation expert at WWF. “So you end up with a lot of unwanted animals that are very poorly regulated.”

These unwanted animals are a potent lure to poachers, who can use parts and products from these backyard tigers to sell on the lucrative black market. Because many of these beasts are untraceable — it can be tougher to adopt a dog from a U.S. animal shelter than to sell a privately owned tiger — many wind up in Asia, where tiger parts and products are used in traditional medicine.

The trade in these unwanted privately owned tigers can threaten wild tigers by feeding the market, Henry says.

Wild tigers are preferred for traditional medicine, but poached privately owned tigers are much cheaper. As long as any tigers are filtering into this market, wild ones are under pressure — and not just from poachers, according to Henry. Their natural habitat is being destroyed by logging and agriculture, and humans are moving into areas where tigers used to live.

CHINA/In the United States, regulations governing who can keep a tiger vary from state to state. WWF wants the U.S. government to set up a central reporting system and database to track these animals. Henry stressed that this does not apply to zoos, especially those that belong to the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

A global tiger summit is set for next month in St. Petersburg, Russia, and 2010 is appropriately enough the Year of the Tiger on the Asian calendar. This is also the year when a young tiger slated for smuggling to Iran was intercepted at the Bangkok airport in August. How is that tiger doing?

That male tiger cub, now about three months old, was transferred to the Khao Pra Tap Chang Thai government wildlife rescue center on September 3. He has fully recovered from being drugged with sleeping pills and is drinking milk and eating a little meat, Henry says, citing information provided by a worker with the conservation group TRAFFIC. The cub now has a nickname — “Nong Phoom” — which is derived from Suvarnabhumi airport.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Martin Harvey/WWF-Canon/Handout (Indian tiger swims at the Bangkok Zoo, Thailand in undated handout image. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS)

REUTERS/Jacky Chen (Siberian tiger cub is seen at the raising center of Dalian Forest Zoo in Dalian, Liaoning province October 4, 2010)

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