World's most trafficked mammal gives Trump new way to hit China on COVID-19

World's most trafficked mammal gives Trump new way to hit China on COVID-19
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A petition from environmentalists to reprimand Beijing for illegally trading an endangered species could ultimately bar U.S. imports of any wildlife from China amid heightened concerns about the role animals play in pandemics.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups want the Department of the Interior to go after China for its treatment of pangolins – the world’s only scaled mammal and the most trafficked – through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty.

If the agency moves forward with the request, President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE could decide to prohibit importation of all wildlife from China, dealing a significant financial blow to Beijing. Former President Clinton took similar steps against Taiwan in 1994 to crack down on the sale of tiger bones and rhino horns.

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Pangolins are being studied as a possible intermediary host of the coronavirus, making them a prime target for Republicans looking to punish China for the spread of COVID-19. The disease has been linked to a group of viruses carried by bats, but efforts to trace its origins are ongoing.

While the sale of pangolins has already been banned in China, a steady market remains for the animal’s scales, which are marketed to increase blood circulation and lactation.

“Pangolins face imminent extinction, yet the Chinese government continues to promote pangolin scales in the traditional Chinese medicine trade,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

“If we want these odd and adorable creatures to survive, China must act now. Certification by the U.S. would be the wake-up call China needs.”

The petition thrusts the armadillo-like creature into the U.S.-China trade war that has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Imposing broad wildlife sanctions on China would be an unusual move for an administration that isn’t known for offering more protections for endangered species. Just last year Trump rolled back several components of the Endangered Species Act.

But blocking imports of any Chinese products tied to wildlife would allow the administration to hit China financially. When Clinton took action against Taiwan in 1994, wildlife imports amounted to about $25 million a year. There are no estimates on comparable imports from China.

Lawmakers like Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHouse panel pulls Powell into partisan battles over pandemic Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election House passes resolution condemning anti-Asian discrimination relating to coronavirus MORE (R-Ohio) have said Congress should “conduct meaningful oversight to hold China accountable for this pandemic” -- comments that came during a hearing evaluating the Trump’s administration’s coronavirus response.

Bill Reinsch, a China trade expert and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the GOP’s desire to punish China gives the petition the potential for more traction than it might otherwise get from the Trump administration.

“This is not an administration showing much interest in” protecting endangered species, he said. “On the other hand, it is an administration where there is no shortage of people inside looking for new ways to hit the Chinese.”

“Trump does not approve everything that comes to him, but it’s probably only a matter of time before they notice this one, and someone is going to say, ‘Hey here’s another way we can go after them,” Reinsch added. “In this case I imagine the president could go along with it.”

Pangolins primarily live in South Asia and Subsaharan Africa, but most seizures are destined for China or Vietnam. Authorities in Singapore last year seized a shipment of 14 tons of scales believed to have been taken from roughly 36,000 pangolins.

CITES prohibits China from importing any pangolin products, but Uhlemann said there needs to be more pressure on Beijing to ensure it cracks down on the black market. Blocking the U.S. import of all wildlife-related products, including things like fur lined coats or snake skin boots produced in China, would use U.S. market share as leverage.

Targeting the wildlife trade as a way to tackle pandemics has thus far been a Democratic-led issue. Tucked into the $3.4 trillion coronavirus package passed by the House in May was a provision that would provide $111 million to track species “that could pose a biohazard risk to human health,” blocking their import to the U.S. and increasing penalties for those who seek to trade them.

Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity ultimately hope to ban the trade of wildlife entirely, something that puts them at odds with the Trump administration and the Interior Department, which has backed efforts to protect giraffes but also has ties to trophy hunting organizations and recently allowed hunting tactics that make it easier to kill bear cubs and wolf pups in Alaska.

Interior has signaled potential support for the petition.

“The Department of the Interior takes illegal wildlife trafficking seriously and is committed to ensuring Americans are protected from the import of illegal wildlife that could pose a health risk,” an Interior spokesperson said in an email.

Reinsch, however, views that potential support as a way for the administration to continue its message of blaming China for the coronavirus as case numbers in the U.S. continue to outpace most other industrialized nations.

“In order to avoid responsibility for managing it here, he wants to blame the Chinese,” Reinsch said of Trump.

“If you link the whole thing to China and blame the whole thing on China -- which he apparently does want to -- to keep that narrative you have to come up with new angles.”