Something must be very going very wrong with a species when there are more in captivity than in the wild.
"This is very bad, and unfortunately, true. Tigers belong in nature and all resources should be directed to preserve them in the wild. They need room to explore and walk long distances. In captivity can never replicate nature," said Aletris M. Neils, director of Conservation CATalyst, an organization focused on feline conservation.
There used to be 100,000 tigers in the wild in the 1900s, according to Carlos Drews, director of the global species program for WWF. "Knowing that there are more of these cats in private pens and zoos signifies a potential risk for the body parts market and for the protection of the species.
"In the United States there is still no legislation regulating the possession and handling of big cats, or management of their deaths. Their owners do not have to report it to the authorities, which could contribute to the sale of body parts on the black market for traditional Chinese medicine," he said. Tiger body parts, from the eyes to the genitals, are used, though it is rejected by the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, he added.
Proposed U.S. legislation to protect big cats ( Big Cat Public Safety Act of 2016) that would regulate the possession of these animals is still pending. According to the website Govtrack.us it has only 1% chance of being enacted, despite being backed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
The lack of a law makes it likely that there are even more tigers in captivity than is known, experts say.
From the point of view of conservation, captive tigers have less value because they can't be released, and their reproduction is limited. "Like cats, tigers reproduce well in the wild and are very fertile," he said. "Our position is that they should be given the natural conditions do so, not reproduce them on farms to then reintegrate them into their habitat."
"It would be very sad if we let tigers become extinct in their natural habitat," said Neils.
Campaign to double tiger population by 2022
More than half of the population of wild tigers in the world is in India, where about 2,226 of the majestic beasts live on reserves in 18 states, according to the last count in 2014. Russia, Bhutan and Nepal also have large populations of tigers, according to recent studies. But in Bangladesh, the number of tigers fell from 440 in 2010 to 106 in 2015,
To save the species from extinction, starting in 2010, the 13 countries with tiger populations - Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam - created a plan titled Tx2 with the goal of doubling the number of before 2022. This week they meet in New Delhi to coordinate specific short and long-term actions.
The project now has the support of WWF and the Global Tiger Forum. Poaching remains a serious threat to the survival of this species, according to delegates. Hundreds of tigers are also killed every year by hunters concerned about their own safety.
The drastic reduction of the population of tigers in Indonesia is also due to deforestation for palm oil and paper pulp production, according to WWF and the Global Tiger Forum.
Cambodia is toying with the idea of reintroducing tigers after declaring them extinct last week after no evidence of their existence in the country has surfaced since 2007.
The challenge is to have more than 6,000 (tigers) next year which is the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese calendar, said Drews.
"We would love to have more than that so the populations reach more comfortably healthy, but there's not much available habitat. This amount would allow some populations to have better prospects for survival," he added.