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THE TIGER FACTORY: How did America end up with the world’s largest tiger population?

While listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, the law allows private possession of captive-bred tigers as long as they’re used for 'conservation', but experts say no tigers bred in captivity are ever released.

ADAM POPESCU: There are about 10,000 tigers in the US. Thirty states allow private ownership of predatory exotics like tigers. The requirements are deceptively simple: a USDA conservation label form and a $30 license. Nine states require no permit or license whatsoever. This allows virtually anyone to own, breed and sell tigers.

Most of the trade is grounded in a high demand for tiger bones and products popular in the traditional Chinese medicine market – which is how I end up in Colorado, stepping through the 22,000-square-foot National Wildlife Property Repository, a mausoleum of 1.3m confiscated animal products. Shelves of mounted tigers, skins, medicinals, gold tooth earrings, claw necklaces, skulls unfold in front of me – the scene is eerily reminiscent of the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, says Sarah Metzer, a US Fish and Wildlife Service education specialist. “What you’re seeing is maybe 10% of all of the seized goods from US ports of entry.” She pushes aside a zebra skin chaise longue to open a loading dock door. “There’s so much contraband we’re running out of space”…

Passing a leopard coat, Metzer crouches by a moth-eaten Bengal tiger head and a snarling cub forever frozen by a taxidermist. “This is a tiger fetus someone was trying to sell online,” she says, sober as an undertaker. “If there’s money to be made off of these animals, it doesn’t matter what form they’re in, there will be folks trying to meet that demand”…

Scientific studies show these products contain no medicinal properties. The Chinese government admits as much, yet permits the goods as long as they’re from farmed animals. “When you think about the financial value of the bones of adult tigers, it’s huge,” says John Goodrich, the chief scientist of Panthera, one of the leading big cat NGOs. “That’s the cause of this huge black market.”

With so many of the animals in the US, is it then fair to speculate that tigers from Texas end up as byproducts in Beijing? “So many big cats in the US disappear,” says John R Platt, the editor of the Revelator, the media partner of the Center for Biological Diversity. “I would not be surprised if US tigers were turning up in China”…

That trade includes everything from Instagram-ready roadside zoos to six-figure tiger skin rugs, as well as tiger bone wines that run to hundreds of dollars a bottle made from steeping a carcass in rice wine, then ageing it. Boiling, grinding and mixing bones with herbs forms a glue-like plaster, all of which requires a steady supply of parts, which experts say is probably coming from farmed tigers in Asia and America…

While listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act, the law allows private possession of captive-bred tigers as long as they’re used for “conservation”, but experts say no tigers bred in captivity are ever released. In 1900, there were about 100,000 tigers in the wild. Today, about 4,000 remain in a handful of nations…

Wildlife traffickers use the same routes as narco traffickers, says Andrea Crosta, the head of Earth League International, an NGO using counter-surveillance to fight wildlife crime… Killing these animals for profit, selling hides, parts or meat are illegal; and it’s illegal to sell cats across state lines. Yet it can be legal within a state, based on individual law.

Take California. Of the 260 US Department of Agriculture-licensed exhibitors there, about 20 are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. With so many Hollywood trainers, theme parks, private menageries, roadside zoos and pseudo-sanctuaries, California ranks third nationwide in dangerous big cat incidents…

The market is huge, but the penalties aren’t… And with so much money, few regulations and a healthy pipeline, the problem isn’t going away. The hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett once said: “the book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end.” A century later, with the species on the brink just to make a medicinal wine that doesn’t even work, or to binge-watch a show before we all move on to the next hit, the haunting question remains: is this the new law of the jungle? SOURCE…

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