Tiger King? Try Tiger Empire: Europe is a Net Exporter of Tigers—and It's Time to Bring That Empire Down | Opinion

As the global lockdown stepped up a gear, Netflix's sensational documentary Tiger King created the virtual water-cooler moment millions across the world badly needed.

The series, documenting the scarcely believable conflict between "Tiger King" Joe Exotic and his bitter enemy Carole Baskin, a self-proclaimed defender of big cats, had everything - sex, violence, and a seemingly limitless cast of increasingly eccentric characters, all tied up in the tawdry world of "private zoos" dotted across the southern United States: grotesque, unsuitable and ill-equipped menageries where animals, staff and visitors were all exploited in different ways.

For European audiences, Tiger King offered a secondary pleasure—a chance to roll their eyes at yet more evidence of the oddness and eccentricity of America.

The underlying idea of the contrast between sensible restrained, civilized Europe in contrast to chaotic, anarchic America has only been heightened by the bizarre spectacle of the president of the United States seemingly supporting protesters against measures designed to halt the already-catastrophic spread of the COVID-19 virus.

But in reality, Europeans should look to their own countries before they judge the U.S. for allowing such odd characters to exploit tigers and other big and exotic animals.

A new report launched this week by our organization, Four Paws, highlights the astonishingly high numbers of tigers held in captivity across the European Union. Some of the estimated 1,600 tigers in Europe, are in the more reputable zoos and wildlife parks in the continent. But many are held in situations similar to those seen in Tiger King, kept in unsuitable compounds and cages, or even on leashes to allow paying customers to take them for a "walk" as if they were simply overgrown domestic cats. They are not.

A wild tiger requires hundreds of square miles of territory in which to roam; a captive tiger in Europe will never have that chance. In what seems a cruel trick to play on an animal, captive tigers do not, under European regulations, qualify for anywhere near the same level of welfare as a wild tiger. In the eyes of the law they are "second class tigers". They can be bred, transported and traded.

In some countries they can be forced to perform in circuses; cubs forcibly taken from their parents can be made to pose for selfies with enraptured tourists. Sometimes it is claimed that these menageries serve an educational purpose; that children need to meet a tiger to understand how precious they are. But as parents will know, the animals that children show most interest in and knowledge about are dinosaurs, even without the chance of posing in a photograph with a captive one.

And when the tigers grow old or ill? Our research has shown that European tigers have been exported to countries where there is significant demand for tigers to be used in traditional medicines.

A live tiger, captive-bred in Europe can attract prices of up to €22,000 in Asia; a kilo of tiger bones is worth €1,700; and a liter of tiger wine—a broth made from tiger bones—is worth €85 on the black market.

Shockingly, the European Union is a net exporter of tigers and tiger parts.

The litany of abuses of live animals makes for grim reading. In October 2018, Four Paws helped uncover evidence of a horrific "tiger farm" in the Czech Republic, where dead tigers were found alongside pots used to brew broth from their remains.

A year later, in October 2019, a transport of 10 live tigers was found on the Polish-Belarusian border: the tigers were allegedly destined for a zoo in Dagestan, but investigative reporters discovered that their destination address was, in fact, a meat wholesaler. One of the tigers died en route, succumbing to cramped conditions and practically non-existent ventilation.

In Spain, Four Paws uncovered a compound where hundreds of "rescue animals" were kept in bare, unadorned cages; a mature tigress was offered to thrill seeking tourists who could pay to be "chased" by the animal; one visitor was badly scratched by a tiger while our investigators were present. In France, a facility that touted itself as a wildlife foundation, open only two weeks in a year, was found to be advertising visits all year round, where tourists, including children, could pay for 10 minutes with a tiger—in a cage.

Things are slowly improving in some parts of the continent: in the Czech Republic, the tiger trade has been severely curtailed by legislation after the shock of the 2018 tiger farm discovery, and Portugal has introduced a ban on performing big cats in circuses.

But the problem requires a Europe-wide strategy; as it stands, tigers get moved between jurisdictions too easily, and the line between the "legal" and "illegal" trade is blurred to the point of meaninglessness: in truth, no one really knows how many tigers are in captivity in Europe, and every day we worry that we will uncover more horrific abuse.

As a first step to ending the commercial abuse of tigers on the continent, European governments acting together should immediately ban the export and re export of tigers. Only when this has happened at the very least can Europeans return to marveling at the excesses and abuses of Joe Exotic and the Tiger King cast with entirely clear consciences.

Kieran Harkin is Head of Wildlife Trade for FOUR PAWS International

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​