[This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.]
With more tigers in American backyards, basements and bathrooms than the wild, it’s worth pausing on Endangered Species Day to consider whether new federal protections for tigers are enough.
On May 6, just days after a tiger that had apparently been used for photo-ops in Florida was found roaming the streets of Conroe following last month’s floods, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed a loophole in its Endangered Species Act regulations. After nearly two decades of looking the other way while hundreds of captive tigers are trafficked in the United States every year, the agency began treating tigers the same as other endangered wildlife.
To protect imperiled species like tigers, the Endangered Species Act prohibits a host of activities, including importing, exporting, selling, killing, harming, harassing and wounding protected wildlife, whether captive or wild.
The law allows for exceptions in a narrow category of cases, when the activity that is prohibited would actually serve to help the species. For example, Mexican wolves might be imported into the United States to repopulate their original ranges in Arizona and New Mexico.
When enacting the Endangered Species Act, Congress made clear that such exceptions were intended to be few and far between.
Despite this intent, Fish and Wildlife tried to formally adopt a rule to allow prohibited activities with endangered wildlife that did nothing to help the species – such as importing a trophy-hunted or a circus animal – if applicants agreed to make totally collateral donations to conservation projects.
Following outrage from conservationists, biologists and others who recognized that this approach would allow the exception to swallow the rule and would further commercialize protected species, Fish and Wildlife publicly withdrew its proposal.
But, quietly, the agency began issuing permits on this basis. That’s why, for example, a Texas man was able to hunt an endangered rhinoceros and import the animal’s head into the United States despite the fact that hunting is what caused the species to become imperiled in the first place.
Under Fish and Wildlife’s current policy, which critics have dubbed “pay-to-play,” virtually anyone who is willing to make a donation can effectively buy themselves out of having to follow the law. And the price isn’t necessarily high – according to public records, the agency has given permits out to highly profitable businesses for as little as $250 per animal. Nor does there appear to be much oversight – highly questionable entities and activities have been funded under these arrangements.
Giving permits out on this basis is inconsistent with not just the language but the very purposes of the Endangered Species Act, which was adopted to combat the ravaging effects of commercialization on species survival, not to further encourage commercialization.
As long as this permitting policy remains in place, we can only expect the new protections for tigers to go so far. Tigers are big business – most notably in the tiger parts trade, but also as money-makers for circuses and for exhibitors who keep a constant supply of cubs for photo opportunities with the paying public.
While the latter activities may seem relatively harmless, they have serious welfare implications for individual animals, which are often ripped away from their mothers prematurely, subjected to physical abuse and crammed into tiny, barren cages.
They also threaten species survival. Leading tiger experts have warned that the use of tigers for entertainment has resulted in “the blurring of our awareness of what tigers are and the serious threats wild tigers face to their continued survival.” As science and nature writer David Quamman put it, “People watch the films, they visit the zoos, and by the mesmeric power of these vicarious experiences, they come carelessly to believe that the Bengal tiger … is alive and well because they have seen it.”
Handing out permits on a pay-to-play basis guts the core protections of the Endangered Species Act. Closing the tiger loophole is an important first step, but until Fish and Wildlife brings its permitting policies into line with the law, the change isn’t likely to spell the end of tiger exploitation – just a little more paperwork and donations for the exploiters.