Almost monthly there are reports of zoos or captive wildlife facilities successfully breeding tigers. On the surface, this sounds positive. After all, tigers are endangered so any tiger born is a good thing right? Well, that’s not entirely accurate. While a tiger cub born in captivity possesses an intrinsic or inherent value (as do all living things) there’s also the instrumental or extrinsic value (its value to others). This includes its value to the ecosystem (wild-born tigers) and its value for both conservation efforts and tourism (wild and captive-born tigers). This makes reporting on such cases a lot less simple. And to make the situation worse, a lot of media outlets are simply highlighting the births rather than the deeper issues behind many of these tiger breeding stories.
Siberian cubs born in China
For example, this recent article from the BBC highlights the birth of four new Siberian tiger cubs in China. The emphasis is on how rare the species is. Instantly, this article is pushing the belief that the birth of these tigers is a good thing.
But, while the news report mentions where these tigers were born, it neglects to explain what the purpose of this facility is. Thus, the reader is led to believe a lovely fairytale of new cubs contributing to conservation, whereas something much more sinister is going on.
Unfortunately, these cubs have actually been born in a full-blown breeding facility. This means that tigers are regularly being bred here likely with little to no regard for proper breeding practices. Additionally, while the facility claims it's all for conservation, the truth is vastly different.
Though operating as one of three facilities under the Feline Animal Breeding Center in China and claiming to be the largest breeding and rewilding centre in the world, the truth of the matter is that there has been no successful rewilding of a captive-born and raised tiger. Instead, this facility is all about money. Some sections of the Tiger Park look great - wide open spaces and no overcrowding. But other areas show the reality. Here cubs are displayed for petting and photo ops, larger tigers are crammed into small cages or sit in overcrowded concrete enclosures with no shade or shelter.
Behind closed doors
Worse, is the fact that this facility is perfectly happy to trade and sell off parts of tigers to earn money. Back in 2008 the park was holding 100 tiger corpses. The chief engineer of the park wanted to sell them to raise funds to care for the remaining tigers, but was prevented only by a tiger trade ban.
But the lack of funds isn't stopping facilities such as this from breeding tigers in large quantities. In fact, they keep breeding but simply cut meals or reduce the quality of food provided instead. The cost of keeping such a large number of tigers in a facility should come as no surprise to the facilities themselves, which is why it is hard to understand why they keep breeding, seemingly without a plan for the upkeep of the animals born. In an ideal world, every tiger cub born could be of value to conservation, but in reality, this just isn’t the case.
Breeding tigers just to breed tigers gives nothing back to nature, it has no influence on conservation and most often it just results in tigers living in poor welfare conditions, for no reason other than potentially bringing in money to owners who care about nothing other than the bottom line. If it's so expensive to keep large numbers of tigers, why keep breeding them if not for profit?
What is conservation?
At the end of the day, what’s going on at this Chinese facility is nothing short of a tourist attraction. As mentioned, there has been no success from any efforts of rewilding tigers. And that goes for zoos in legitimate breeding programmes too. All captive-bred tigers are still kept in captivity and will remain in captivity for their whole lives. There is no light on the horizon here - tigers are too complex in their needs for territory, for food and water access and in their danger to human habitation to be successfully rewilded without enormous efforts on an international scale.
Proper breeding programmes, however, do ensure that the tigers are not inbred and try to keep as wide a genetic pool as possible, swapping tigers between participating zoos and facilities. This is called ex situ conservation and simply means that the conservation of tigers is occurring outside their natural habitat. With no successful rewilding, these breeding programmes are really only ensuring that tigers remain on the planet in any shape or form, rather than going fully extinct. Whether this is the right move is a discussion for another day though!
In contrast, in situ conservation ensures that there are proper management and regulation protocols in place to protect the tigers currently living in the wild. This is much harder as natural tiger populations are under serious threat from a range of anthropogenic influences, such as poaching, habitat loss and pollution.
Say it for what it is
Really, the news of captive-born tiger cubs is not necessarily a cause for celebration. There are an estimated 10,000 captive tigers in the US alone with more being bred regularly. In contrast, there are some 4000 tigers left in the wild across all natural range countries.
By highlighting and indiscriminately celebrating captive births, media outlets are drawing attention away from some of the bigger issues. First, these cubs are not necessarily born into a welfare-friendly facility, and second, we really should be focusing our efforts on in situ conservation rather than increasing the captive tiger population.
As such, the onus is on the media to provide factual information to help the public understand the issues and priorities. At the end of the day, we need to focus on real progress, real success and stop pretending that every cub born is relevant to conservation.