Here’s the dirty secret about tigers: as many as 5,000 of the big cats live in the U.S. in peoples’ backyards, roadside zoos and private breeding facilities. That’s significantly more than the estimated 3,200 tigers that remain in the wild in scattered, fragmented habitats in Asia.

These U.S.-born tigers have existed for years in a legal gray area. Although tigers are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the law only protects animals with clearly defined lineages. These backyard tigers are mostly so-called “generic” animals, a legal loophole which means they are either of unknown genetic background or they are hybrids of different tiger subspecies. That makes them effectively useless animals for tiger conservation because their genetics are a hodgepodge of different or mysterious origins. It also means it has been legal to indiscriminately buy and sell these big cats and then transport them across state lines, something that normally can’t be done with ESA-listed species.

That loophole has now been closed, or at least tightened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it has finalized a new rule about generic tigers. Effective May 6, all interstate commerce of generic tigers will need to be permitted or registered under the Captive-bred Wildlife Registration program, much like other species.

Conservationists have been calling for this action for years. More than 15,000 people submitted public comments when FWS first proposed this way back in 2011. Five years later, action has finally been taken.

FWS director Dan Ashe called the new regulations “a positive drive for tiger conservation,” noting that this will help to reduce the trade in both captive and wild tigers. Many conservationists have noted that these backyard tigers increase the pressures on wild tigers, most notably because we don’t know what happens to generic tigers after they die. They may, conservationists argue, end up part of the illegal trade in tiger bones and other body parts, which are used in traditional Asian medicine. “We have no idea if their bones go into the trade or not,” says J.A. Mills, author of Blood of the Tiger. “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.”

Concurrent with the generic tiger decision, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a similar crackdown on the display of tiger cubs. The USDA regulates the display of live animals and it has now taken steps to block roadside zoos and other institutions from allowing the public to handle or feed tiger cubs, as well other infant big cat species. Conservation groups have long argued that these activities endanger both the public, who could be harmed by the animals, as well as the cats, which could catch diseases from people or be deprived of important maternal care. Again, many have wondered what happens to these cubs after they become too large, strong and aggressive to be handled.

In a public release, World Wildlife Fund senior policy advisor Leigh Henry, who was one of the first people to link generic tigers to the illegal trade, called the FWS announcement “a lifeline to tiger populations fighting to make a comeback in the wild.” She added, however, that more needs to be done. “The U.S. must continue to improve its regulation of the estimated 5,000 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.”

Conservationists still hope to take this to the next step. Over the past several years, the U.S. House and Senate have introduced the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would end all public ownership of tigers and other big cats outside of zoos. The act, which would supersede the current patchwork of ineffective state laws, has never gotten as far as a vote. Hopefully that won’t take another half-decade to get that far.

Previously in Extinction Countdown: