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Media Claims About The Tiger Population In The United States Are Frequently Exaggerated

While the media frequently references populations of 10,000 tigers in the Unites States, these population claims have been inflated by a lack of accurate sources.

Media Claims about The Tiger Population in the United States Are Frequently Exaggerated

5/23/2018 - Rachel Garner

How Many Tigers?

It’s been a huge item in the news in recent years: America has a tiger problem. The real tiger problem, however, is not the one that The Huffington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and Natural History Magazine have published about. The issue is not that there are tens of thousands of privately owned tigers in backyards across the United States, but that the numbers being quoted in the media about America’s “captive wildlife crisis” are far higher than indicated by actual academic quantification of the tiger population in the country. While data from a commonly trusted survey puts the estimated total number of tigers below 5,000 animals (Werner, 2005), including the cats in zoos and sanctuaries, media discussions of the topic frequently report tiger numbers that are a couple of thousand animals above academic estimates ("Dangerous Exotic Pets", 2013 & 2018; "Tigers In America", 2018), sometimes even citing a domestic population at or above as 15,000 tigers (Glausiusz, 2008; Thompson, 2014). Not only are the numbers being reported to the general public by the nonacademic media massively inaccurate, their credibility is impossible to track, as the estimates almost always make reference to “expert testimony” without actually sourcing the origin of the information. This article examines the tiger population claims in an extensive collection of both academic and media sources obtained through intensive research; the data evaluated are representative of the trends in tiger population messaging over more than fifteen years but are not exhaustive. 

Who is Counting Cats?

Only a few entities have ever done comprehensive surveys of the captive tiger population in the United States, and while their published work is now all over a decade old, it is still considered reliable enough data to be the current source of tiger population numbers in the country for wild animal conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)(Williamson & Henry, 2008; World Wildlife Fund, 2010). Regulatory oversight of captive exotic animals in the United States is sporadic enough to make estimating big cat populations in the country a challenge: The Department of the Interior approves exports and imports of exotic animals that fall under the Endangered Species Act as part of the provisions of CITES (1973), but does not track them further once they arrive in the country. U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulates any sale or transport of big cats across state lines through enforcement of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act (2003), but not within the states themselves. State, county, and municipal governments may or may not require owners to register or license exotic animals kept within their borders ("Big Cats Are In Crisis", n.d.). In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture licenses businesses that import exotic animals, conduct commercial trade in captive-bred exotic animals, or utilize exotic animals for exhibition, but does not track privately owned animals in non-commercial settings ("Regulated Businesses", n.d.).

The main academic source for tiger population data in the United States is a study done by Brian Werner of the Tiger Missing Link Foundation in 2005, in collaboration with the Feline Conservation Federation (FCF). Werner's research divided tiger populations in the US into four categories: 264 tigers in AZA-accredited zoos; approximately 1,379 in sanctuaries; 2120 in USDA licensed facilities (non-AZA); and 1,129 in private collections.  He drew the conclusion that in 2005, there were an estimated 4,692 tigers within the borders of the United States. When cited by other academic sources, this number is frequently rounded up to "approximately 5,000" total tigers. Information on how these numbers were derived is scarce, as Werner's 2005 publication does not include documentation about how he collected data, but a historical frame of reference makes it possible to estimate pieces of his methodology and provides context for why his data was considered accurate enough by other researchers to be so heavily referenced. 

Werner founded the Tiger Missing Link Foundation in the early 1990s, and had started creating a database of tigers in the United States - both under regulation and outside of it - with the goal of eventually using it for genetic research (M. Stinner, personal communication, April 22, 2018). The 2005 census was not Werner’s first rodeo; in 1997 he published a census of big cat populations in the country using the information from his database. By the time the 2005 census was undertaken, Werner had joined the FCF.  The FCF continues to be the only membership group in the United States that advocates for and educates the public about private felid ownership. In 2005, after nearly 50 years of existence, the FCF was well-connected with both regulated felid exhibitors and private big cat owners who fell outside of current government regulation (L. Culver, personal communication, April 28, 2018). It's likely that their involvement, as well as Werner's decade of research, was the basis for the perceived credibility of Werner's 2005 census.

Academic Sources Citing Academic Sources Agree: 5000 Tigers

As of May 2018, most peer reviewed articles published in the last decade that either research or deal with tiger populations in the United States - of which there are surprisingly few - accepted Werner's 2005 census, or cited a source that uses his estimation of 5000 tigers. The 2005 census was used as a main source for the Paper Tigers TRAFFIC Report in 2008, which did not attempt to derive new population numbers but did note that "the rough estimate of the country’s overall tiger population is about 5,000 animals," despite the issues with Werner's study and their own inability to derive precise numbers. The authors later stated that it would not be unreasonable to maintain a database of all captive tigers in the United States if "the generally accepted figure of about 5,000 Tigers in the country [was] taken as a starting point." Werner's estimates were later affirmed by renowned tiger researcher Ron Tilson and his co-authors in a 2010 publication as "more reasonable than the higher estimates (...) suggested by some" (Nyhus et al). Post-2010, academic sources that deal directly with tiger populations generally report that the estimated 5,000 tigers in the U.S. is probably accurate, and source that number back to Werner's work as cited either by the WWF/TRAFFIC (2008) or Nyhus and Tilson (2010). 

Academic sources for tiger population numbers in the United States, 1997-2018. Click on the image for a larger version.

Media Sources on Tiger Populations: All Over The Place

While academic publications that cite other academic sources have maintained fairly consistent narrative for the past decade about how many tigers are in the United States, the numbers cited in the media* on the topic during the same period of time have been highly variable. Media that cite specific sources for their tiger population claims, such as WWF and CNN, tend to report only slightly higher tiger population numbers than the academic community, generally quoting 5000-7000 animals with a few higher numbers and ranges in recent years. 

Sourced media claims for tiger populations in the United States, 2003-2018. Click the image to see a larger version.

However, fewer than half of the media pieces surveyed for this article, even those from trusted publications and major advocacy groups, actually specify the source of the numbers they report.  Many of these sources interview rescues or animal advocacy organizations about the captive wildlife crisis in the United States, and then go on to offer tiger population claims that have no specific attribution but are implied to have been provided by the interviewees (Brulliard, 2016; Mosbergen, 2016). As a result, media publications that do not cite specific sources - usually referring to the testimony of 'experts'  - consistently report much more exaggerated ranges of potential population data, frequently suggesting there could be 10,000 tigers in the country (Animal Legal Defense Fund, 2011; Brulliard, 2016; Pickett, 2016) and sometimes as many as 15,000 or 20,000 (Newkirk, 2009; Thompson, 2014; "Endangered Species Tiger", 2010 as cited in Tedeger, 2015). 

Un-sourced media claims for tiger populations in the United States, 2003-2018. Click the image to see a larger version.

This implied attribution of population claims to figures and groups that the public views as highly credible is likely responsible for a large amount of the inflation in tiger population numbers published by the media. Someone encountering information that appears to be sourced from a well-known organization, one that could reasonably be expected to have expert information on the topic of tiger populations, is not likely to think it necessary to double-check that data before repeating it, especially not if that information is found in a major national publication or directly on that organization's website. Authors of academic literature on tiger populations published in the late 2000s were aware of how inflated the higher numbers in the media were: A paper in 2009 and a textbook chapter in 2010 (both by Nyhus and  Tilson) both noted that the higher estimates offered by reporters, while frequently repeated, were unlikely. 

A comparison of sourced media tiger population claims (black) and un-sourced claims (blue). Click the image to see a larger version.

*For the purpose of this article, "media" publications are considered to be any source that has not gone through an academic peer review process and has not been published in a scientific journal. This includes newspaper articles, websites, and legislative documents. Quotes from experts in the animal care field are not considered academic sources unless they directly reference an academic study.

"10,000" Backyard Tigers

Attempting to track and source the evolution of tiger population claims in media sources is effectively playing a game of telephone. Web content can change, some sources have been deleted, and many hyperlinks created a decade ago no longer function. Some of the improbably high population claims appear to have been sourced originally to the web sites of specific media sources, but those pages no longer exist and no archived version can be found. In at least 2005, 2013, and 2015, newspaper articles, blogs, and websites sourced the Humane Society of the United States for a claim of 10,000 tigers (Covarrubia & Rosenblat, 2005; "Help Stop the Abuse of Animals", 2013; "Tigers Pacing", 2015). However, as the HSUS updates their web site frequently, any traces of that number - or where it might have been sourced from - are long gone.

Even when the publications putting out claims are kept current, tracking down the actual sources behind the numbers being attributed to "the experts" is often unsuccessful. For instance, a student who was studying the publicly quoted numbers for tiger populations in 2015 found herself in a sourcing loop. "[She] asked several organizations how they came to their tiger estimates via email. Both PETA and National Geographic returned [her] inquiries and referenced the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a well-known animal-rights organization that opposes exotic pet ownership ("Dangerous Exotic Pets", 2013). The HSUS told [her] they got some of their information from the USDA, and that it was also “common knowledge”. The USDA said that they did not come up with this number, and got what information they had on national captive tiger populations from the HSUS" (Tedeger). 

To make it even more complicated, some popular media sources actually contradict themselves by presenting different population claims on different pages within a single website. The Big Cat Rescue "Help Stop The Abuse of Animals" web page has stated that "the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that only 10% of the 10,000 tigers in the U.S. are in professionally regulated zoos and sanctuaries. (...)  Up to 10,000 tigers are kept as private pets, according to R. Eric Miller, senior vice president of zoological operations at the St. Louis Zoo." This text has not been updated since at least 2013. The same page lists Florida as having 1,455 registered tigers, a number which was published in a Palm Beach Post article in 2003 (Scwed). These numbers are easily five years out of date, if not more, and are still portrayed as being current facts on the web site even though they directly contradict the 5,000 tiger number listed on another BCR web page about their current legislative efforts ("Big Cat Act", 2018). 

Even Academia Can Be Misled By Implied Sources

Academic work that only needs to deal with tiger populations in passing, such as when studying zoonotic disease issues, appears to be frequently misled by the prevalence of tiger population claims put forward by the media without sources. For academic publications where the author would need only a passing familiarity with the topic, it is understandable that the authors might source the ubiquitous higher population numbers from the media narrative rather than the older academic estimates. Authors without a strong background in exotic animal regulation that are looking for more recent data than that provided by Werner's 2005 census would have very little reason to question the more recent population claims provided by trusted media outlets and animal advocacy groups that work on a national level. 

A comparison of tiger populations claims in academic literature that cites academic sources (black) and media sources (blue), 1997-2016. Click the image to see a larger version.

Not So Many Tigers After All

It's clear that the population numbers for the media narrative about America's "captive tiger problem" have been erroneously inflated by a consistent lack of accurately sourced material. Media pieces frequently discuss tiger populations that are off by multiple thousands of animals from the 5000 animal estimate put forward by researchers, often doubling and sometimes even tripling it. Given that the 2005 census is now 13 years out of date and laws regarding private exotic animal ownership have changed drastically since it was completed, even the academic narrative is almost certainly inaccurate. More research is needed to determine exactly how many tigers are in the United States, but it was determined by well respected tiger experts that tiger numbers were unlikely to be in the 10,000-15,000 range close to a decade ago, and it's even more unlikely that those numbers are true today. 


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Rachel is an educator and animal science writer. With prior professional experience in zookeeping, visitor education, shelter behavior management, and more, she works to translate pertinent field-specific knowledge into comprehensive explanations about current animal related topics.