Biden Delays Potential Embargo on Chinese Products Despite China’s Role in Pangolin Trafficking

ON 11/04/2023 AT 01 : 13 AM

President Biden announced today that he will not immediately embargo products from China despite the country’s failure to halt the illegal wildlife trade threatening highly imperiled pangolins. Instead, the president is allowing the Chinese government until Dec. 31 to address its pangolin failures or suffer economic sanctions.

The decision responds to the Secretary of the Interior’s recent certification under the U.S. Pelly Amendment that China has “diminished the effectiveness” of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The certification finds that the country’s open domestic market for pangolin products is driving illegal trade.

The pangolin is the most trafficked mammal in the world, with most pangolin parts headed to the Chinese market. The scaly mammals are consumed in China as a luxury meat, and pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. CITES bans international pangolin trade, yet the market continues in China because of legal exemptions and poor enforcement.

The Pelly Amendment authorizes the president to act, including by imposing trade sanctions, against countries determined to be violating international conservation treaties such as CITES. Instead of issuing sanctions today, the president stated that China must “completely clos[e] its domestic market for pangolins,” account for pangolin scale stockpiles, and "fully remov[e] pangolins” from China’s official list of approved medicines or suffer sanctions as of Dec. 31, 2023. Conservation groups petitioned the Interior Department to certify China over pangolin trade in 2020.

"Pangolins desperately need help, and I’m disappointed in the U.S. government for delaying needed sanctions that could have finally aided these animals," said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world and are facing a real risk of extinction. We hope the White House will assert strong pressure over the next two months to force China to finally close its pangolin market and not let the country off the hook.”

According to the United Nations, pangolin seizures have increased 10-fold since 2014. The size of individual seizures — including a record-setting seizure of 14 tons of scales representing around 36,000 individual pangolins in 2019 — has also increased.

Pangolin scales are legally sold in China for use in traditional Chinese medicine, where the scales are marketed to increase blood circulation and lactation. Research by the Environmental Investigation Agency into the online availability of traditional Chinese medicine products containing pangolin scales in 2022 identified a minimum of 52 products manufactured by Chinese companies.

“We hope that the U.S. can capitalize on its leadership opportunity. In the past, the U.S. has been a strong proponent of international efforts to save the pangolin from extinction, and we are happy to see that the U.S. is willing to engage China in a way that could lead to meaningful change,” said Erica Lyman, clinical professor of law and director of the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment. “The potential trade sanctions signal in stark terms that the U.S. expects China to do more to address pangolin trafficking, including shutting down the domestic market for pharmaceuticals manufactured with pangolin scales.”

In 1993 President Clinton used the Pelly process to certify and ban wildlife imports from Taiwan for its rhino trade, which violated CITES. Taiwan promptly closed its domestic rhino market.

“Trade restrictions complement actions taken under CITES that attempt to hold China accountable for the demand fueling the slaughter of pangolins,” said Nick Fromherz, director of the Latin America program at the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment.

“Demand for pangolin parts and derivatives for use in the traditional Chinese medicine industry is a significant threat to the species,” said James Toone, EIA UK deputy campaign lead for pangolins. “The U.S. government, along with the rest of the international community that are state parties to CITES, should ensure through their engagement that China is responding proactively and comprehensively to the certification under the Pelly amendment. We await to see what action China takes prior to the 31st December.”