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Exotic animals: 18 tiger deaths a cruel blow to imperiled species

October 20, 2011 |  2:07 pm

Dead animals

This post has been corrected. See note below for details.

The Ohio slaughter of dozens of big game animals was heartbreaking for animal lovers worldwide. But the loss of as many as 18 tigers -- reputed to be rare Bengal tigers -- was especially devastating news for conservationists.

There are as few as 3,200 tigers left in the wilds of Asia, according to the World Wildlife Fund. And their survival very much depends on what happens in the U.S., where nearly 5,000 tigers are believed to be held in so-called backyard captivity, said Leigh Henry, senior policy advisor for the international conservation organization. Beyond traditional zoos, the tigers can be found in makeshift zoos, tourist attractions, breeding facilities -- and backyard pens like the one in Ohio.

The fate of animals in the wild is inextricably entwined with the fate of those in captivity, Henry said in an interview with The Times.

PHOTOS: Exotic animals on the loose

The World Wildlife Fund said it fears that animals in captivity in the U.S. could be sold for their body parts when they die or grow too old, or become too costly or dangerous, she explained -- and those parts could end up feeding a bustling market in China.

That market is fueled by a long-debunked belief that potions made from a tiger's body parts contain mysterious restorative properties. So, whether they know it or not, tiger owners in the U.S. could end up feeding this demand, she said, which in turn places a higher premium on tiger parts that come from "wild poached tigers."

"There is a huge trade for tiger parts, and any supply increases that market," she said.

Conventional wisdom puts the majestic, striped creatures at the top of the food chain -- an apex predator -- because of their size, strength and seeming lack of natural enemies. But in fact, their numbers are dwindling due in large part to poaching and habitat loss.

In the early 1900s, it was estimated that there were 100,000 tigers roaming the Earth. Now they are considered an endangered species, being pushed closer and closer to extinction in the wild.

"Their numbers are so low," Henry said, "that any inkling of a threat" could be devastating.

The precise number of tigers privately held in the U.S. is unclear, in part because there's no formal reporting required.

The World Wildlife Fund says that the patchwork of state and local laws governing exotics in the United States allows for many loopholes, and said that in some parts of the country it's harder to adopt a dog or a cat than it is to bring home a lion. That's why the organization wants uniform federal guidelines to require reporting of all big game exotics held in captivity, including when they change hands and what happens to the animals upon their death.

The animals in Ohio were kept in cages and pens on a 73-acre farm. Though they were said to be especially rare Bengal tigers, that would be highly doubtful. Finding a true, full-blooded Bengal tiger on the market, even the black market, is very unusual.

Keeping tigers in such tight quarters can seem especially cruel given their need to roam.

"These are creatures that need a lot of space in the wild," Henry said.

[Corrected at 1:26 p.m. Oct. 22: An earlier version of this post implied the World Wildlife Fund has evidence that tigers held in captivity in the U.S. are sold for parts in China. It said today that it does not have such evidence, but nonetheless fears that such activities are taking place.]

ALSO:

All but one exotic animal killed, captured -- or eaten

Exotic animals: Owner suffered bite marks to head, was dragged

Owner of Ohio animal preserve known for guns, brushes with the law

-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Wild animals that were hunted down and killed after they escaped from their pens in Zanesville, Ohio, are collected for burial. Credit: Tony Dejak / Associated Press

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