- If China doesn’t act to wean itself off its pangolin addiction before December 31st, President Biden must follow through on threats to sanction China –– or risk losing not just pangolins, but the US’s critical influence over global wildlife trafficking, argues Azza Schunmann, the Director of the Pangolin Crisis Fund.
- Schunmann says Biden’s opportunity to take action against pangolin trafficking lies in the Pelly Amendment, which authorizes the president to limit imports from countries that support the illegal wildlife trade: “The Pelly Amendment was proven to be one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of the Chief Executive to end wildlife trafficking. Now, it’s overdue to be wielded once again – this time, for pangolins.”
- “President Biden has given China until December 31 of this year to comply by ‘completely closing its domestic market for pangolins and pangolin parts, transparent accounting of domestic stockpiles, and fully removing pangolins and pangolin parts from the national list of approved medicines,” Schunmann notes.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
In a new, tersely-worded letter to Congress, President Biden uses a word that – just a few short years ago – was seemingly foreign to the lexicon of most Americans. Threatening the People’s Republic of China with trade sanctions for non-compliance, the president goes on to repeat the word not once, not twice, but no fewer than 36 times.
What once-obscure issue has so rapidly risen to prominence that it made its way to Biden’s desk? AI? Cryptocurrency? Semiconductors?
The answer is decidedly lower tech; in fact, it’s downright prehistoric. Literally.
Pangolins – the planet’s lone scaled mammal – have roamed Earth for around 80 million years. But today, due in large part to the syndicate-level trafficking of the animal, pangolins are at serious risk of extinction. And the ramifications for humans and ecosystems alike would be devastating.
For the uninitiated: There are eight known species of pangolins. The smallest of which weighs about the same as a chihuahua; the largest clocks in closer to a Labrador retriever. At whatever size, they’re covered from the tip of their tail to their face with fish-like, ruddy brown keratin scales, the same protein that makes up human fingernails and rhinoceros horns.
In a sick twist of irony, that keratin – which, in different forms, evolved as a natural defense mechanism for both pangolins and rhinos – has put a target on their backs.
Rhinoceros horns, like pangolin scales, have historically been trafficked, ground into a powder, and sold as traditional medicine. Poaching has been the primary driver of the decimation of pangolins and rhinos alike, as impoverished communities too often have no better alternative to support their families.
But that’s not where the similarities end. Hope remains for the world’s rhinos, helped by pressures by the U.S. Department of the Interior in the 1990s – pressures that leveraged a seemingly obscure clause within a piece of fishery legislation called the Pelly Amendment to turn the tides against rhino trafficking. And that same amendment is the impetus of Biden’s pangolin letter to Congress.
The Pelly Amendment is a single sentence added to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Fishermen’s Protective Act that authorizes the president to limit imports from countries that support the illegal wildlife trade. On November 8, 1993, President Clinton wrote a message to Congress that echoes in Biden’s own pangolin letter today. In it, the president threatened to impose trade restrictions on Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China unless they made moves to curtail the killing and trafficking of rhinos. China made good on the request, dodging economically damaging sanctions. Taiwan’s efforts were deemed insufficient, and the president followed through.
President Clinton’s trade pressures were unprecedented. They were bold. And they worked. The importation and sale of rhino horns in both Taiwan and mainland China are now banned, and rhino populations are rebounding, thanks to initiatives like Wildlife Conservation Network’s Rhino Recovery Fund that fund community-led conservation projects that monitor and protect rhinos, target poaching syndicates, and dispel myths about the medicinal efficacy of rhino horns in Eastern markets. And while that battle is far from over, Clinton’s pressures marked a turning point for rhinos.
The Pelly Amendment was proven to be one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of the Chief Executive to end wildlife trafficking. Now, it’s overdue to be wielded once again – this time, for pangolins. And again, the fate of the species in question hinges largely on China, a huge market with an “insatiable thirst” for pangolin scales.
President Biden has given China until December 31 of this year to comply by “completely closing its domestic market for pangolins and pangolin parts, transparent accounting of domestic stockpiles, and fully removing pangolins and pangolin parts from the national list of approved medicines.”
In many ways, pangolin conservation is even more complicated than that of the rhino. Because pangolins live in isolation, often deep in the bush, and are nocturnal, population monitoring is immensely difficult. They’re relatively unknown (despite a moment in the media spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic as a possible source of the virus), so pangolins don’t benefit from safari tourism revenue or donors who are swayed by more instantly-recognizable and universally-beloved “charismatic megafauna.” And there’s no Disney-Pixar movie about the plight of the pangolin – at least not yet.
By working to save pangolins, we’re forging solutions to many of the complex challenges that threaten them – but extend far beyond any single species. When one of the Pangolin Crisis Fund’s partner organizations reports a new birth or a sighting in the field, it represents so much more. It signals the restoration and repopulation of some of the world’s most fragile and endangered ecosystems. It signals that novel technologies and community-led conservation efforts have advanced, allowing us to better monitor and protect endangered species everywhere. It signals that syndicate-level trafficking of animal parts can be effectively mitigated. And it signals that humans and animals have struck a more harmonious and enduring coexistence. Put simply, by saving pangolins, we’re saving the world.
President Biden has the chance to definitively move the needle with the Pelly Amendment – but the failure to do so could be unimaginably damaging, not just for pangolins, but for all endangered wildlife, present and future. His latest letter, while strong in symbolism, was a delay of earlier vows to impose trade embargoes on China. Unless those promises are met with substance, the Pelly Amendment will be nothing more than a paper dragon, diminishing the best available mechanism for halting the illegal wildlife trade.
The world simply can’t afford inaction.
Azza Schunmann is the Director of the Pangolin Crisis Fund (part of the Wildlife Conservation Network) where she is focusing on tackling the threats to pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade. She is a former British diplomat specializing in security issues, but moved into conservation due to her passion for wildlife. Azza combined her technical skills with a love of wildlife by training rangers in Kenya to prevent wildlife crime, and then worked with Save The Elephants and WCN’s Elephant Crisis Fund on their counter-wildlife trafficking program.
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