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Captive Loophole Closed to Help Tigers

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Fish and Wildlife Service has closed a loophole that had allowed generic captive tigers in the United States to slip through Endangered Species Act regulations. Generic tigers are those that are not identifiable as Bengal, Indo-Chinese, South China, Amur (Siberian) or Sumatran subspecies, due to cross breeding or other factors, according to the action. "This rule results in a uniform policy that applies to all tigers and will help Service law enforcement agents enforce the ESA," the agency said.

All tigers are listed as endangered under the ESA, and are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the highest level of international protection, yet unregulated captive tigers contribute to the international trade in tigers and their parts, which undermines conservation of wild animals, the agency said.

"Removing the loophole that enabled some tigers to be sold for purposes that do not benefit tigers in the wild will strengthen protections for these magnificent creatures and help reduce the trade in tigers that is so detrimental to wild populations," Service Director Dan Ashe said. "This will be a positive driver for tiger conservation."

Today, wild tigers occupy only seven percent of their historic range, and experts estimate that 500 wild tigers are killed each year, the agency said. Because tigers "readily breed in captivity," there are more captive tigers in the United States than there are tigers in the wild, which are estimated to number only 3,500, a tiny fraction of the estimated 100,000 wild tigers worldwide a century ago.

"Astonishingly, there is no system in the U.S. to monitor how many captive tigers there are, who owns them, when they're sold or traded, and what happens to their parts when they die," Leigh Henry, senior policy advisor for wildlife conservation with the World Wildlife Fund, said.

Tigers, one of the most iconic animals in the world, are the largest members of the cat family, reaching 12 feet in length and weighing up to 650 pounds. They live up to 15 years, and eat large prey, such as water buffalo. They are widely represented as symbols of strength, vitality and virility in many cultures.

Trophy hunting and the market for tiger rugs decimated tiger populations until those practices were banned. Currently, shrinking habitat and the demand for tiger parts continue to threaten the species' survival. "In some cultures, tiger parts are thought to cure diseases such as rheumatism, convulsions, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Tiger bone used in these traditional medicines sells for as much as $75 to $115 per pound," the agency said.

"The international community has expressed concern about the status of tigers in the wild and the risk that captive tigers, if used for consumptive purposes, may sustain the demand for tiger parts, which would ultimately have a detrimental effect on the survival of the species in the wild," the action noted.

Captive breeding of endangered wildlife is allowed under the ESA if it can be shown to support conservation of animals in the wild. The exemption regarding generic tigers reflected the agency's previous focus on purebred animals as opposed to the supposed lack of conservation value of animals with mixed genetics.

While the loophole closure is seen as an important step, tiger conservationists say more needs to be done. "The new regulations by USFWS are a critical first step toward ensuring that tigers bred in the U.S. aren't helping fuel the illegal trade that drives poaching of wild tigers overseas. It's also another sign that the Obama administration takes wildlife crime seriously. But there is more to be done. The U.S. must continue to improve its regulation of the estimated 5,000 tigers within its borders and work with other countries with large captive tiger populations, most notably China, to map a way forward so that these animals aren't a threat to the conservation of tigers in the wild," Henry said.

The Big Cat Rescue organization, which says it has been pressuring the Service to close the loophole since 2007, was even less enthusiastic about the action. "Regulations can't work, because USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and USFWS don't have the resources nor apparently the will to enforce the weak rules they have, so that is why we need an all out ban on the private possession of big cats," they said in response to the announcement.

The final rule is effective May 6.

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