Surveillance video at a wildlife park in northern China shows the horrifying moment a woman is attacked by a captive tiger. The woman survived, but her mother was killed after she rushed to defend her daughter.
The woman's husband also came to his wife's rescue and was not hurt.
The deadly encounter took place Saturday at Badaling Wildlife World outside Beijing. Yet the incident could have been prevented and is a reminder of the danger—and questionable track record—of such captive animal experiences, says Luke Dollar, a conservation biologist who directs National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.
"Lack of awareness and lack of respect for wild animals can sometimes be very expensive, and unfortunately it cost a woman her life," Dollar says.
John Goodrich, the senior program director for tigers for the conservation group Panthera, puts it thus: "If you step out of a car in a cage full of tigers, it's common sense what could happen."
According to local news reports, guests are allowed to drive their own vehicles through a section of Badaling Wildlife World that features captive Siberian tigers. But such attractions are not a good idea, Dollar and Goodrich warn.
In fact, the park has had several other safety problems in the past. A security guard who stepped out of a vehicle was killed by a tiger there in 2014. In March, another employee was killed by an elephant. In 2009, a man was killed by a tiger after he scaled a fence and entered an enclosure.
"I hope they're not taking any actions against the tiger," Goodrich adds.
Attempts to reach Badaling Wildlife World have so far not been successful. The county government issued a statement saying they are investigating the incident, the park has been temporarily closed, and that "here we remind the tourists, walkers must comply with the relevant regulations, improve safety awareness, to avoid accidents."
Captive Tigers Can Be More Dangerous
Lions and tigers in captive situations "often don't have a healthy fear of people," Dollar says. They often associate humans with food or positive attention, especially if they are hand raised.
Some wildlife attractions even permit people to pet or hand-feed big cats, which can exacerbate unnatural behaviors, he adds.
In contrast, in the wild, big cats tend to avoid people, possibly seeing them as rival predators or even as threats, particularly in areas with a history of hunting. When a person on a safari vehicle exits a vehicle around them—which can still be dangerous—the big cats typically scatter, Dollar says. (Read about the woman killed by a lion in South Africa.)
"But captive cats, which may have been around people their entire lives, may be curious when people get out of a vehicle, since that probably doesn't happen on a regular basis," Dollar says.
Local media have reported that the woman who first exited her car at the park Saturday may have been arguing with her husband, although a family friend later disputed that fact. If she was raising her voice, it could have attracted the tiger, Dollar says, since it could have piqued its curiosity, or even sounded like a distress call (predators often hone in on prey in distress).
Captive Parks Can Be Problematic
As the recent controversy over Thailand's tiger temple suggests, some captive wildlife attractions have been linked to supplying the black market for bones, skins, and other valuable contraband. And some facilities have been criticized for keeping animals in unsanitary, small, and unnatural conditions. Sometimes, lions and tigers are even kept together, causing them significant stress.
What's more, there's little evidence captive breeding on such a large scale is benefitting the species overall or in the wild, Dollar says. There are more than two times more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than there are throughout the entire world in the wild.
Although he's not familiar with Badaling Wildlife World in particular, Dollar says many captive animal attractions around the world are "exploitive and profiteering." The animals often "aren't being bred to restock wild populations," Dollar adds.
As of this writing we are unable to determine whether Badaling has ever released tigers into the wild. Goodrich says he is not aware of any reintroductions of tigers across China.
Still, "cats are amazingly resilient, and they do just fine if we can adequately manage and protect them," says Dollar.
Although the study has since been contested by some biologists, an April report estimated that there about 3,890 tigers left in the wild, up from 3,200 in 2010. Yet the April report estimated only seven wild tigers in China, noting that the country has yet to do a formal count. (Read about the recent decline of leopards.)
Goodrich adds that China remains the world's biggest market for blackmarket tiger parts, which he calls "the driving force behind the decline of tigers." The country has done some work to protect its remaining wild tigers, but more could be done, he adds.
"I love the fact that people care about big cats, but I wish people could do what they can to help them without this exploitative component [of wildlife attractions]," Dollar says.
Note: This story was updated at 1:30 pm ET with comments from Goodrich of Panthera.