US poised to bring trade sanctions against China for rhino, tiger trade

The United States is one step from bringing trade sanctions against China for its domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn.

The fact is the US has been one step away since 1993, thanks to a legal petition filed by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) with the Clinton administration. They did so under the Pelly Amendment of the Fisherman’s Protection Act, which gives the US mandate to punish countries whose nationals undermine international protections for endangered species. Not long after China’s State Council banned domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, President Clinton put the sanctions on hold, where they remain today.

In July 2014, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) asked the Obama administration to revisit them, providing lengthy documentation to show that China continues to ignore international agreements aimed at stopping tiger trade and allows legal trade in tiger products from tiger farms. The US Department of Interior confirmed it is reviewing EIA’s request.

Here’s the puzzling part. When WWF and NWF filed their petition back in the 1990s, the press releases went flying. Then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt publicly declared, “The Pelly Amendment requires us to address this destructive trade, and we have done so.” Now, in 2015, with wild tiger populations down by half and armies unable to stop the slaughter of rhinos for their horns, the same players are pretty much mum on the matter. At the same time, they and others have piled on in support of President Obama’s executive order to stop wildlife trafficking.

“Wildlife trafficking is pushing some of the world’s most iconic species toward extinction while driving a lucrative criminal industry and funding armed groups that fuel instability in countries around the globe,” said a White House blog on February 11. “In the last year, the United States invested more than $60 million in international programs to address this issue, including the provision of technical assistance and capacity-building activities to strengthen law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and reduce demand for trafficked wildlife.”

More than $60 million spent but not a peep about China battery farming tigers to make tiger-bone wine, which stimulates poaching of wild tigers because the bones of wild tigers are considered more potent and prestigious and are increasingly valued as investment assets. Also nothing about China’s nascent rhino farms and their role in quietly promising rhino horn to 1.4 billion potential consumers while the slaughter of rhinos for their horns continues to spiral out of control in Africa and Asia.

“In the early 1990s, we feared that Chinese demand for tiger parts would drive the tiger to extinction by the new millennium. The tiger survives today thanks in large part to China’s prompt, strict and committed action and US support for it,” said WWF’s Sybille Klenzendorf in 2007. “To overturn the ban and allow any trade in captive-bred tiger products would waste all the efforts invested in saving wild tigers. It would be a catastrophe for tiger conservation.” Exactly!

Indeed, the world owes a debt of gratitude to the governments of China and the United States—and WWF and NWF—for the fact we still have some 3,000 tigers remaining in the wild. Without their bold actions in the 1990s, how many would be left? Many fewer. Perhaps none.

Now a spectacular opportunity sits before us. The Department of the Interior’s revisitation of the active Pelly complaint against China for its tiger and rhino trade and the implementation of President Obama’s executive order on wildlife trafficking come just as China’s President Xi Jinping is preparing for his first state visit to the United States in September. What a timely opportunity for the US and China—with support from like-minded NGOs in the US and China—to forge a bilateral commitment to stop all trade in tiger and rhino products from all sources!

The good news is that you can encourage such game-changing action with just a few minutes of your time by contacting the White House and the Department of Interior. Your voice will matter, but only if your use it.

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