Exactly one year ago, at the 2019 Student Conference on Conservation Science-New York at the American Museum of Natural History, Sarika and current research collaborator Monique Sosnowski met. This year, Sarika shared their work at the same conference.
Monique is an environmental criminologist, and it was her presentation on this topic that interested Sarika and sparked conversations about wildlife trafficking between the two. They each shared interest in the trafficking of tiger parts, and the role that the United States (US) plays in this global issue. While habitat loss has played a major role in reducing tiger populations since the 1970's, poaching has and continues to be a primary threat to the tiger's future. Demand for tiger parts drives tiger poaching, and identifying patterns of trade and trade routes is an important area of research to inform science-driven anti-trafficking interventions. Most research on tiger trafficking has focused on Asia and little is known about tiger parts entering the US, which is a major market for wildlife products. Sarika and Monique decided to join forces, combining their expertise in wildlife trafficking and tiger conservation, in their project 'A decade of illegal and legal tiger parts entering the US.' This conference was an opportunity to share their findings and the co-authors aim to get this research published in a peer-review journal soon. We look forward to sharing more details.
Graphic by Pooja Gupta, https://www.poojaslaboratory.com/
September 26th was National Public Lands Day. To celebrate, Sarika joined the Student Conservation Association (SCA) as an alumni mentor during a virtual day of service. The SCA said in a Facebook post "some of the top themes from our alumni mentorship lunch focused on opportunities and the environment. Thank you to our experts for providing helpful feedback and career building tips for our attendees!"
Sarika focused on her experience in educating people in the US and India on issues related to tiger conservation in central India with Wild Tiger.
On July 31st, Sarika presented "species conservation: tigers in India and the US" as apart of a series of events hosted by the Student Conservation Association (SCA). Sarika is an alumni of the organization, completing a year-long Americorp internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015, and has stayed active in many SCA events.
In the presentation, Sarika clarified what species conservation is, and explained why the tiger is the focus of many conservation efforts. She debunked myths and gave examples of what tiger conservation is and is not. For example, organizations working on securing habitat with local communities in areas where tigers live is legitimate tiger conservation. On the other hand, the private and commercial breeding of tigers in captivity in the US is not tiger conservation.
Here are some of the questions (with Sarika's answers) we got at the end of the presentation.
Do you think Joe Exotic was good or bad for this movement (conserving tigers)?
Joe Exotic was bad for tiger conservation. He killed tigers in his possession and trafficked tigers all over the United States, actions that he was federally charged for and put him in prison. In addition, he misled people by making them believe that breeding tigers in his roadside zoo was equivalent to saving tigers. I am unsure whether or not his fame from Tiger King is good or bad from tiger conservation. On one hand, the show did not reveal the dark truth behind his actions and made him into a kind of hero. The series was not based on fact. On the other hand, the popularity of the show might bring the issues of captive tigers into the spotlight and help us pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act.
What is one question that you would like to ask Joe Exotic about his “work” with tigers?
There are two things I would like to learn from Joe Exotic: 1) For tigers that you killed or died in your possession, where did the remains go, and did you ever sell the tiger parts to somebody? 2) Have you ever seen a tiger in the wild and heard what tiger conservation is from somebody who is from a tiger range country?
Do you think the US government should rescind the permit for tiger cubs in order to support conservation efforts? Is that addressed in the Big Cat legislation?
The Big Cat Public Safety Act would federally ban cub petting. This is absolutely necessary to support tiger conservation efforts. If a federal ban cannot be passed, we must work state by state to ban cub petting and end the cycle of illegitimate tigers in America.
What has been the most challenging case that you have encountered in regards towards protecting tigers.
Some of the most challenging things about protecting tigers is that many people who work for tiger conservation are trained in biology and wildlife yet, we need people from a large variety of more social-oriented backgrounds such as healthcare, policy, and economics. For example, when people, largely women, are collecting firewood in the forest, they are at a high risk of getting attacked by tigers and other wildlife. Firewood collection is necessary because it is the fuel used to heat and cook food. People are also at a high risk of wildlife attacks when they are defecating outside, which occurs in households that do not have toilets. The access to alternative cooking fuel and toilets greatly impacts the relationship that local people have with tigers and other wildlife. Protecting tigers is more than counting tigers and securing their habitat.
Does the UN do any work to support wild tiger conservation efforts?
Absolutely. The UN ensures that tiger conservation remains a priority at high levels of governance. Although the UN does not directly work on-the-ground, they ensure international funding mechanisms that make grassroots work possible and create policy incentives for various countries.
Happy Global Tiger Day! Below are three things you can do right now to save wild tigers:
1. Support grassroots organizations working in tiger habitat. I have spent the last 5 years working with and getting to know the local organizations doing the most impactful work in central India. Tiger Research and Conservation Trust, the Last Wilderness Foundation, and the Satpuda Foundation all employ and empower local people, work 24/7, on-the-ground in and around Tiger Reserves, and work with India’s government. Donations to these organizations do not go towards marketing schemes and other overhead expenses that many international organizations have. If you are based in the US and are interested in supporting these organizations, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Support US legislation such as the Big Cat Public Safety Act and other bills that provide funds to international wildlife conservation. The Big Cat Public Safety Act is likely to be voted on later this year. If you are in the US, contact your national government representatives to tell them to adopt the Act as a law to address the US captive tiger crisis. If you are in India, sign this petition: https://change.org/indiansforthebigcatpublicsafetyact.
3. Have an active voice in environmental legislation in India. Until August 11, 2020, the public can comment on the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020. There are several reasons that the draft EIA 2020 is bad for tigers and their habitat, and the environment and democracy in general. For example, development projects such as mining can start construction before obtaining environmental clearance. In addition, public input on several types of development projects would be made impossible. For the past couple of weeks, the government has attempted to censor Indian citizens and organizations from campaigning against the draft EIA 2020. We need to show international solidarity on this issue. You can watch this video on Mongabay India for more information: india.mongabay.com/2020/06/video-how-does-the-new-draft-eia-affect-the-environment-and-me/. Email email@example.com with the subject line “Withdraw draft EIA 2020” and tell them that a stronger environmental law is needed to protect tigers and to safeguard our own health.
My mom and I have made over 100 animal-themed face masks over the past couple of months! Inside my house, an entire room transformed into a face mask factory. I have spent many hours cutting and ironing fabric while my mom sits behind the sewing machine. It has been great bonding time, and we continue to make them (available to order online here).
Stay positive and test negative. A big thank you to everyone who has supported Wild Tiger through the purchase of a face mask.
On-the-ground support for central Indian communities
Communities living around Tiger Reserves who depend on tourism revenue for income face numerous challenges during our global pandemic because of the inability to travel and the absence of tourism. We provided basic needs to communities living around Panna, Bandhavgarh, and Kanha Tiger Reserves through financial support to the Last Wilderness Foundation, one of our Indian-based non-profit partners.
For the last 5 years, Wild Tiger has been working in central India, which in addition to being a global priority tiger conservation landscape, is home to a high population of indigenous and traditionally marginalized people. These communities largely live at the edge of forests, and depend on these forests for their livelihoods and subsistence. Households also engage in seasonal migrant labor and amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, these migrants are traveling home from urban centers where the virus is present. Sarika is a co-author on a paper accepted in the journal Current Science titled Post-lockdown Spread of COVID-19 from Cities to Vulnerable Forest-Fringe Villages in Central India, which identifies potential methods to ease the spread of the virus if it reaches these rural, forest-dependent communities.
Click on the file below to download the press release.
Tigerland is a documentary on tiger conservation which won Best of Festival at the International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF) in April 2020. In partnership with IWFF, Wild Tiger created the Tigerland activity guide and Sarika created a video taking a deeper dive into the issues raised by the film and discussing how COVID-19 is impacting communities and wildlife in India. Our guide has supplementary information and activities for high school students to further engage with tiger conservation issues and critically think about sustainable development.
The activity guide and Sarika's video can be found by clicking here.
Sarika recently talked Blane Edwards of Earth Offline on the Conservation Tribe podcast in the episode "Tiger conservationist responds to Tiger King." You can listen to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and online. The conversation goes in depth on captive tigers issues in the United States and around the world, and answers questions such as: do captive 'generic' tigers have any conservation value? How would you define a tiger sanctuary? What is tiger farming and cub petting? How are wild tigers impacted by American's captive tiger trade? What are ligers and is it ethical to breed them? What are the main threats to wild tigers? What are some conservation strategies to protect wild tigers?
By Sarika Khanwilkar
People cannot stop talking about the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, which is a sensationalized narrative that pits narcissistic tiger breeders and owners against seemingly hypocritical animal rights activists. The internet ignited with Tiger King themed memes because of the widespread viewership and the outlandish characters, mainly Joseph Maldonoda-Passage (better known as Joe Exotic), Kevin ‘Doc’ Antle, and Carole Baskin (of Big Cat Rescue).
Within a week of the release, Tiger King’s own characters, conservation organizations, and major news outlets responded to the series and Tiger King merchandise was available online. After its release more than a month ago, new impacts of the series are still emerging. A day after the opening of Joe Exotic’s zoo on May 2nd, now owned by Jeff Lowe and re-branded to Tiger King Zoo, huge crowds flocked to visit the place where captive tigers are bred, exhibited, and abused. Visitors and zoo staff have been photographed in obvious disregard for public health guidelines, in place to protect people from spreading COVID-19. Given that tigers can become infected with the virus, any tiger interacting with potentially infected or asymptomatic people is placed in danger. The opening of Tiger King Zoo reaffirms that profit has and will always take precedence over the health and safety of tigers in roadside zoos.
Tiger King was a success by every single commercial measure. However, Tiger King has committed an injustice to tiger (Panthera tigris) conservation and efforts to stop illegitimate breeding and ownership of tigers in the US. The series leaves out critical information about tiger breeding operations like those run by Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle, misrepresents the work of Big Cat Rescue, downplays the importance of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, and fails to provide a global context for the problems associated with captive tigers. Tiger King left out the story of tigers.
As other articles have pointed out, Tiger King fails to address animal abuse, even when it was captured on camera. In a way, this might be the best thing the series did. Instead of an all-knowing figurehead discussing why it’s bad to take a newborn tiger cub away from a mother or unnatural to keep so many tigers together, Tiger King showed it. Tiger King slyly integrated widespread animal mistreatment into a mysterious murder and conspiracy plot and allowed viewers to come to their own conclusions about what was shown. Interestingly, many Tiger King viewers have expressed sympathy for Joe Exotic despite Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle each having long histories of animal welfare violations, facts that Tiger King never acknowledges.
While Tiger King showed the abuse of tigers, the ethics involved in exploiting captive tigers for profit was hidden from sight and skewed. Joe Exotic sold tiger cubs for cash outside his home state of Oklahoma and made these transactions appear as donations on falsified paperwork, which exempted the activity from certain oversight. He was under federal investigation for these activities before he attempted to hire two people to kill Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue and his arch nemesis. Joe Exotic’s murder plots overshadowed his illegal wildlife trafficking.
Selling cubs and profiting from tiger tourism without contributing to conservation like Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle happens at roadside zoos. Tiger King overlooks important distinctions between these types of businesses and accredited zoos and animal sanctuaries. These differences are critical to understand where tigers in captivity are harmful or helpful to tiger conservation. There is an estimated 5,000 – 10,000 captive tigers in the US, more double the number of tigers left in the wild. In the US, tigers in zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are deemed valuable to conservation since there is a scientific basis behind breeding of such individuals – namely, maximizing genetic diversity. These tigers are a last resort for conservation in case we lose our wild tigers and need to start a reintroduction program. Unfortunately, less than 300 of the tigers held in captivity in the US are found in AZA-accredited zoos.
The majority of captive tigers in the US are owned by private households, and breeders like Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle provide a seemingly endless supply of cubs to these owners from their roadside zoos. The tigers they breed have no value to conservation and their commercial operations undermine efforts to conserve wild tigers. Tigers bred by Joe Exotics or ‘Doc’ Antle are generic tigers, meaning they aren’t of any particular tiger subspecies. For example, a generic tiger might be a mix of a Bengal tiger (Tigris panthera panthera) and a Sumatran tiger (Tigris panthera sumatrae), and they will never contribute to reintroduction efforts. Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle claim to help save wild tigers by breeding generic tigers in an attempt to conceal their purely commercial operations. In misrepresenting how their work benefits wild tigers, Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle displace money away from legitimate tiger conservation. Tiger King makes no attempt to refute claims that roadside zoos aid tiger conservation, leaving viewers with the inability to distinguish between captive tiger programs for profit or conservation.
The magnitude of tigers within private households in the US has resulted in a surplus of unwanted tigers. Although tiger cubs can be purchased for as little as $2,000, they can cost more than $10,000 per year to feed and care for when fully grown, and then can no longer be taken care of. Unwanted pets are lucky to find placement at a non-exploitative animal sanctuary, such as Big Cat Rescue, accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Accredited animal sanctuaries were created and are needed because of irresponsible pet tiger owners.
Tony, a tiger exhibited at the Tiger Truck Stop in Louisiana, photographed in 2016 by Sarika Khanwilkar.
Tiger King falsely equates the employment practices and animal conditions at Big Cat Rescue with those at Joe Exotic’s and ‘Doc’ Antle’s roadside zoos, in an attempt to skew the motives of the animal sanctuary. Volunteers at non-profits are common, and Big Cat Rescue works for tiger conservation. Big Cat Rescue has never faced an animal welfare violation and supports legislation that would end the unnecessary breeding and ownership of tigers in the US. Tiger King distorts the critical role that Big Cat Rescue plays in addressing and resolving the problem of captive tigers in the US and neglects important facts that distinguish and place animal sanctuaries within legitimate and commercial captivity. This lack of clarity damages accredited institutions and provides no guidance for people who want to ethically visit a tiger in captivity.
Besides the few unwanted tigers who go to an accredited sanctuary, we don’t know where privately-owned tigers in the US go when they can no longer be cared for or die. For commercial exhibitors like Joe Exotic and ‘Doc’ Antle, a tiger cub is only profitable between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks, when cubs are permitted to interact with the public. Cubs that cannot interact with the public are an expense and this is one of the reasons Joe Exotic shot five of his tigers. Many US states lack laws specific to the disposal of dead tigers and we don’t know where tigers that are no longer wanted by breeders or owners go.
Tiger skin and bones are valued at $20,000 and $7,000 on the illegal wildlife market, respectively. Seizures of illegally traded tigers and tiger parts around the world have increased since 2002. The demand for tiger parts drives poaching, which is a primary threat to the survival of wild tigers. America’s endless supply of legal captive tigers could potentially supply parts to this bourgeoning illegal market. For example, in 2018, Arongkron Malasukum was sentenced to prison for selling and sending tiger skulls purchased in the US to Thailand. From 2015 to 2016, he exported 68 packages of tiger and lion skulls, claws, and other parts (valued over $150,000) from the US. Overall, law enforcement data to catch the leakage of legal tigers into the illegal trade is limited. The uncertainty surrounding this leakage requires us to take a precautionary approach to tiger breeding and ownership in the US. Tiger King makes no attempt at communicating the relationship between captive tigers in America and the demand for tigers in illegal markets.
A cohesive strategy towards managing the US captive tiger population is needed. There is currently no federal law that prohibits the private ownership of tigers and laws at state and local levels vary widely. Tiger King includes a few scenes showing Carole Baskin advocating for the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would ban tiger breeding, pet tiger ownership, and public cub handling. The bill has been introduced in the US Congress and there is a high change it will be voted on this year but, it needs more support from the public and political leaders. Tiger King missed the opportunity to motivate viewers towards action to help secure the Big Cat Public Safety Act as a law by downplaying its benefits and urgency. In addition, the representation of Big Cat Rescue and portrayal of Carole Baskin was highly misogynistic, leading viewers to question her and her organizations integrity and motives. Viewers were unlikely to understand the importance of the Big Cat Public Safety Act because Tiger King discredited those who were and are the bills greatest champions.
In what might be the gravest oversight of Tiger King, we rarely hear about wild tigers or how wild tigers are impacted by captive tigers. The future of wild tigers is uncertain and tigers have undergone massive population declines in the wild, currently occupying only 7% of their former range. The global tiger population is 3,159.
Captivity is the one place where tiger populations are undoubtedly increasing. Tigers are held in captivity and intensively bred in farms around the world to the detriment of wild tigers. China began farming tigers in the 1990’s. Currently, China, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam operate tiger farms, even though there is substantial scientific evidence that it poses a risk to wild tiger populations. Tiger farms have supplied the illegal demand for tiger parts. The argument for meeting the demand for tiger parts with captive tigers is that this captive supply displaces poaching pressure from wild tigers. However, consumers of tiger derivates, like tiger bone wine and medicinal products, prefer parts sourced from wild tigers and are willing to pay a premium price for wild-sourced products. Therefore, farming tigers undermines our efforts to conserve wild tigers by stimulating demand and poaching.
America’s political negotiations that attempt to persuade other countries to regulate their tiger farms in order to reduce illegal tiger trafficking are hampered by America’s own captive tiger problem. America has the opportunity to be a global leader in phasing out captive tigers which have no benefit to wild tiger conservation, but has not done so. The global context of America’s captive tigers may have been out of Tiger King’s scope, yet it is imperative for viewers to understand the far-reaching consequences of private ownership and breeding of tigers in America.
Altogether, Tiger King fails miserably at delivering a message that will lead to conservation action. It glorified tiger ownership and raised visitor numbers at Joe Exotic’s former roadside zoo, and most likely others. Tiger King had the potential to bring the problem of tiger ownership in the US to the limelight but instead it twisted narratives and, ironically, left out tigers. By providing character-driven entertainment more appreciated by mainstream media, Tiger King has reached a wider audience than a more traditional conservation-oriented series. Nonetheless, filmmakers make no attempt to create an impact campaign with conservation organizations that might have helped address the inadequacies of the series. Now, conservationists, big cat specialists, zoos, and sanctuaries are all independently racing to capitalize on Tiger King’s success so the public can have a chance to hear expert opinion. We can thank Tiger King for opening up this topic of discussion but we shouldn’t tolerate the inability of Tiger King to communicate real conservation issues as an oversight. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction and our current epoch, the Anthropocene, is marked by human impacts to the planet. The filmmakers had a moral obligation to viewers and tigers to either share a more informed story or make an effort to supplement their docuseries with conservation efforts. Instead, they sold out by valuing entertainment over impactful storytelling.
Now, it is up to individuals to educate themselves and conservation organizations to correct the misguided narrative that Tiger King depicts. Addressing threats to the tiger’s survival involves reducing the demand for tiger parts to ease poaching pressure, securing habitat, mitigating human-wildlife conflict, and engaging with and empowering communities who live side by side with wild tigers. Tiger King inspired an international conversation on captive tigers but due to its shortcomings, it depends on you and me whether or not conservation will follow. To support the Big Cat Public Safety Act, go to www.bigcatact.com.
Bi-monthly updates from the Wild Tiger team with occasional guest blog posts and personal field updates from Sarika Khanwilkar.