After years of discussion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has finally made it illegal for Americans to buy, sell, and own tigers without a permit.

It's true: before now you could legally keep one of those enormous, beautiful, endangered (and yes, violent) cats in your backyard. Kind of. You see, just like prescription drugs or cereal, there are legally two types of tigers: brand name and generic. The lineage of brand-name (or pedigreed) tigers is clear; each individual belongs to a single subspecies, all of which are endangered. As a result, all pedigreed tigers fell under the Endangered Species Act, and their transport and welfare were strictly regulated. Generic tigers, on the other hand, are the result of cross-breeding between at least two subspecies. Because their mixed genes make them technically outside the purview of conservation programs, they were not considered endangered, and therefore were legal to buy, sell, and own without a permit. 

This may seem like a minor technicality to you, who presumably have never tried to buy a tiger, but to exotic animal traders, this loophole was more like a large tunnel. Conservationists say there are about 3200 tigers remaining in the wild. But at last count, Americans were keeping as many as 5000 captive in their backyards, roadside zoos, and breeding operations.

And what was bad for generic tigers was bad for tigers everywhere. Tigers are endangered for many reasons, one of which is the black-market value of their bones, pelts, and organs. But buyers on the black market don’t know the pedigree of the animals they’re purchasing, and some conservationists say it’s possible that American breeders have been selling generic tigers for parts.

“We have no idea if their bones go into the trade or not,” wildlife investigator J.A. Mills said in Scientific American. “If their bones go into the trade, then that’s stimulating demand for wild tigers just as much as the products from tiger farms in China.” 

The USFWS announced the loophole closure earlier this week. “Removing the loophole that enabled some tigers to be sold for purposes that do not benefit tigers in the wild will strengthen protections for these magnificent creatures and help reduce the trade in tigers that is so detrimental to wild populations,” USFWS director Dan Ashe said in a press statement. “This will be a positive driver for tiger conservation.”

The same day the ruling was made public, the USDA announced a tightening of regulations around the treatment and exhibition of tiger cubs. 

World Wildlife Fund senior policy advisor Leigh Henry told Scientific American that these policies represent progress, not a solution. 

“The U.S. must continue to improve its regulation of the estimated 5000 tigers within its borders and work with other countries with large captive tiger populations, most notably China, to map a way forward so that these animals aren't a threat to the conservation of tigers in the wild. The U.S. and China recently stepped up with joint commitments to end the trade of elephant ivory. This collaboration should serve as a model for protecting other threatened wildlife, and with only a few thousand left in the wild, tigers should be among the highest priorities.”

 [h/t Scientific American]