There are around 6000 Tigers held in captivity in China today. It is estimated that around 5000 of these are held in what are termed ‘Tiger Farms’. This number may well be an underestimate.
These Chinese Tigers are often referred to as ‘rare’ Siberian or Amur Tigers by the press. In essence this is true because the Siberian Tiger Panthera tigris altaica is rare, rare in the wild. There may only be as few as 30 wild animals remaining in China. The other Chinese Tiger sub-species is the South China Tiger Panthera tigris amoyensis which may already be extinct outside of zoos.
The Tiger Farm Tigers are not rare because they are no longer of the Siberian or South Chinese sub-species. They are generic Tigers. Hybrids. Generic Tigers are animals which have been cross bred across sub-species and where sub-species have been bred brother to sister, mother to son over generations. Such animals are virtually useless from the point of view of conservation. Once a Tiger has been hybridised then it and all its progeny, forever will be hybrids.
ISIS (International Species Information System) has three studbooks for the Amur Tiger. One for the species, one for the group and one for hybrids. Whereas these list a total of some 500 animals worldwide, not a single specimen is listed for China. Note though that 500 is really a drop in the ocean because this is only a listing of the responsible holders who actively participate in official breeding management programmes. Any zoo which holds Siberian/Amur tigers and claims to be involved in conservation and is not ISIS listed is not telling the truth.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service sensibly stated:
“Generic or crossed tigers cannot be used for enhancement of propagation of the species, however they can be used in a manner that should enhance survival of the species in the wild. Examples include exhibition in a manner designed to educate the public about the ecological role and conservation needs of the species and satisfaction of demand for tigers so that wild specimens or captive purebred subspecies are not used.”
The only problem with this approach is that the holders of these generic tigers continue to breed them. There is a real and genuine need for more spaces in captivity to hold known specimens of the various sub-species. Perhaps not breeding animals, but there just in case they are needed. A‘not keeping all your eggs in one basket’ approach. Taking up the room in captivity with generic tigers is harming the chances of managed populations of Tigers surviving.
Furthermore the IUCN Guidelines for Re-introductions states:
“It is desirable that source animals come from wild populations. If there is a choice of wild populations to supply founder stock for translocation, the source population should ideally be closely related genetically to the original native stock and show similar ecological characteristics (morphology, physiology, behaviour, habitat preference) to the original sub-population.”
“If captive or artificially propagated stock is to be used, it must be from a population which has been soundly managed both demographically and genetically, according to the principles of contemporary conservation biology.”
The World Zoo Conservation Strategy says:
“Demographic stability is needed to ensure that an adequate number of animals of breeding age are available to reproduce at the rates needed to increase or maintain the population at its desired size. Healthy populations are needed to ensure that animals are capable of breeding when needed. Genetic diversity is required for populations to remain healthy and adapt to changing environments (i.e. experience natural selection). Ex situ breeding programmes need to preserve this diversity, otherwise the long-term fitness of these populations will be compromised.”
To which they add
“A primary goal of cooperative ex situ breeding programmes for threatened and endangered species is to support in situ conservation. This may be through rescue of species imminently threatened with extinction in the wild, through research, education, or promotion efforts that support in situ populations, or simply as genetic and demographic reservoirs serving as backups for endangered wild populations.”
This would clearly not be the case with any of the Chinese Tiger Farm animals.
It also applies to White Tigers, which are also very common in Chinese Zoos and often promoted as something different and special. White Tigers only exist in captivity because of continual deliberate and harmful inbreeding. Today there is probably not a single captive White Tiger anywhere in the world that could be considered as genetically important. Undeniably beautiful the breeding has resulted in numerous genetic defects which are not immediately obvious. Evidence enough though to stop breeding and maintenance for purely commercial gain.
Generic Tigers are a major problem wherever they are located be it the US, Australasia, Europe or China. Generic Tigers are unregulated. Breeding and disposal are at the whim of the holder. In some locations a reporting structure may be present and in others not. This leaves the Tigers open to abuse. No-one knows how many are born, how many died. No-one knows either what happened to the bodies after death. It is barely a hop and skip to disappearing into the black market of illegal animal products.
If the Tiger Farms of China were told to cease operation there would be a major problem. There is no question about releasing them into the wild. The population in the wild is already in trouble. Adding more tigers to it would only increase the problems for the Tigers that are already there.
So where could these 5 or 6 thousand tigers go? A small number, perhaps a hundred or so which could be shown to be pure and with a proven lineage may perhaps be taken into the official breeding programme, but the rest?
It is unlikely that a few thousand newspaper readers are going to dip their hands in their pockets to rescue 6,000 tigers as was done recently for a dozen Lions from Romania. Although most people are wholly against Tiger farming, and rightfully so, there would be a huge howl of protest at the suggestion that these Tigers should be euthanized.
The idea that all breeding should cease in the Tiger Farms and that the animals should live out their natural lives sounds reasonable but just who is going to foot the bill? Even if each one were to live just ten years it is a long time to maintain something which is to all intents and purposes, useless. Maintaining five thousand is just not a serious option. So what happens next?
First published on Newsvine