Tiger behind bars

The Tiger Kings in Europe:

FOUR PAWS releases new report unveiling out-of-control captive tiger trade


20 April 2020Netflix’s controversial Tiger King has sparked discussions around the globe. The world has been introduced to tiger breeders Joe Exotic, Jeff Lowe and Doc Antle, united by their obsession with big cats and activities exploiting the animals for profit and attention. Whilst the docu-series reveals more tigers could be living in captivity in the United States (estimated 7,000) than there are in the wild (roughly 3,900), the picture is equally concerning in Europe. Global animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS reveals a shocking discrepancy between figures held by European authorities and the results of a recent investigation. The estimated 1,600 tigers revealed by FOUR PAWS is far greater than the 913 suspected by authorities across Europe, and highlights the gaps in data pertaining to the numbers of big cats born, what happens to them during their lifetime and after they die.

Throughout the EU, it is legal to breed and commercially trade tigers both within Europe and for export around the world. The latest research by FOUR PAWS highlights that the exact number of captive tigers is unknown by the relevant authorities. Following Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to 28 EU member states and eight neighbouring countries to obtain this information, FOUR PAWS is very concerned that only 17 countries out of 36 were able to share numbers of tigers kept in zoos, private homes, circuses and sanctuaries. With estimations of 400 tigers in Italy alone, the conservative total of 913 tigers revealed via Freedom of Information requests across Europe is brought into question. 

Europe Map Tiger Trade

This claim is further supported by Member of the European Parliament Martin Hojsík: “This new report paints a startling picture as to the inability of authorities to answer the simple question of how many captive tigers there are in their country. This unfortunately doesn’t prevent authorities from allowing the trade to continue and simply renders the captive-born tiger a ‘second-class tiger’ as it is not offered the same protection as wild tigers.” In America, Tiger King paints a worrying picture regarding the lack of regulation for keeping tigers and other big cats. Kieran Harkin, International Head of Programmes for Wild Animals in Trade at FOUR PAWS, continues that this is a widespread issue: “The captive tigers in Europe face the same challenge. Most member states don’t keep a central registration, official papers are easily falsified, or new cubs are not registered at all. Tigers are treated as a commodity, being passed around by individuals happy to breed, exploit and trade them.”

Read more about our campaign and the report here: www.tigertrade.four-paws.org/europes-second-class-tigers 

Data gaps and uncertain numbers

Private keeping and/or use of wild animals in circuses is still allowed[1] in many countries. Many of which are kept in poor conditions and made to endure cruel treatment. For several months, FOUR PAWS investigated the legal and illegal trade flows across Europe through research on trade data and seizures as well as through requests to authorities to share numbers of tigers kept in captivity in zoos, sanctuaries and at private homes. To gather tiger numbers of 36 European countries, a total of 641 authorities (national/regional/local) had to be contacted during that period by FOUR PAWS and many were unable to share any data despite numerous requests. For example, in the UK 410 authorities had to be contacted to receive the numbers and, despite requests and payment of administrative costs, 78 authorities in Germany were unable to reply. Without effective record-keeping of captive tiger numbers in EU member states and control on the trade within the EU, cases of illegal trade and subsequent cruelty will continue to flourish.

Wild tiger populations will profit from commercial tiger trade ban

As a first step FOUR PAWS recommends the issuing of an EU guidance document proposing member states to suspend the export and re-export of live tigers and tiger parts or derivatives – with exceptions in the case of legitimate zoos or sanctuaries – followed by a comprehensive ban on commercial tiger trade. “A commercial trade ban will stop traders and breeders profiting from big cats across Europe and indirectly contribute to the recovery of wild tiger populations worldwide”, Harkin concludes.


[1] It is legal to keep tigers privately in Ireland, UK, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Estonia, North Macedonia, Malta and Luxembourg. It is legal to keep tigers in circuses in Italy, Poland and Lithuania. Finally, it is legal to keep tigers privately and in circuses in Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Montenegro, Albania, Ukraine and Turkey

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Hannah Baker

Head of Communications UK 


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