February 19, 2022

The US Has the Power to Throw Pangolins a Lifeline—and They Need It More than Ever

On this World Pangolin Day, we explain how the U.S. has the power to protect pangolins by exercising its authority under the Pelly Amendment, but isn’t doing so.

World Pangolin Day invites us to celebrate an amazing family of creatures, creatures that once roamed vast stretches of Africa and Asia. Yet concern, and even alarm, should also occupy our thoughts on this eleventh annual World Pangolin Day. Pangolins remain the most trafficked mammal on Earth. All eight species are threatened with extinction according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Each faces a declining population trend, driven in large measure by illegal trade in pangolin scales for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

In August 2020, the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment asked the U.S. government to exercise its authority under the Pelly Amendment to pressure China to take action to mitigate the leading cause of illegal hunting and trade in pangolins: TCM. You can read about our request here.

As explained in our petition, submitted jointly with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Investigation Agency, China’s maintenance of a legal market for TCM containing pangolin scales invites traffickers to poach pangolins and funnel parts into China. Although Chinese law prohibits the importation of pangolin scales—the bare minimum required by virtue of pangolins’ listing on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I—the legal market in China for pangolin products in TCM incentivizes traffickers to circumvent the import ban through well-organized smuggling operations.

Sadly, even despite the pandemic, evidence suggests that the illegal trade in pangolin parts abounds. Seizures since the filing of our petition, in August 2020, demonstrate continued demand for pangolin scales in China. Between 2019 and mid-2021, “there were 13 pangolin scale shipments (weighing more than 500kg) with a total weight of 58 tonnes seized either in or en-route to China.” Similarly, another report analyzing over 900 seizures between 2016 and 2020 identified China as one of three leading countries of destination. As long as China maintains a legal market for TCM containing pangolin scales, there is little reason to believe this trend will change.

But that hardly means we should throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the extinction of pangolins. To the contrary, the U.S. has the power to pressure China to close its domestic market for pangolin products and, in so doing, throw a lifeline to these unique creatures. The U.S. Pelly Amendment authorizes the government to certify China as “diminish[ing] the effectiveness” of CITES through, inter alia, its maintenance of a domestic market that foments illegal trade in pangolins. Pelly was designed for situations just like this. More than ever, pangolins need the law as an active ally, not as an indifferent bystander. The U.S. has the power to do the right thing. Once again, we urge the government to act in accordance with the law and certify China under the Pelly Amendment.


Nicholas Fromherz is an Adjunct Professor and Latin American Program Director at GLA. Previously, Nick served as a Visiting Assistant Professor, teaching courses within Lewis & Clark’s Environmental, Natural Resources, and Energy Law program. Since 2015, Nick has taught Administrative Law at Lewis & Clark Law School during several summer sessions. Combining this experience with his considerable time living and working in Latin America, Nick builds on GLA’s international wildlife practice.

Erica Lyman is the Director of GLA. She is a Clinical Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School with a rich history of teaching international environmental law, with a focus on international wildlife issues. She teaches an International Animal and Environmental Law Clinic for JD students and an International Wildlife Law Clinic for Animal Law LLM students. Erica’s practice has included 15 years of work advocating for wildlife within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna and work on-the-ground to stop wildlife trafficking.


The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law attorneys and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter, with the most comprehensive animal law curriculum offered anywhere. In addition, CALS is the only program that offers an advanced legal degree in animal law (both in person and online) and three specialty Animal Law Clinics. In 2020, CALS launched the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment, as champions for wild animals and wild spaces, in collaboration with Lewis & Clark Law School’s #1 ranked Environmental Law Program. CALS is a fully self-funded nonprofit organization operating under the Lewis & Clark College 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, and is only able to provide these educational opportunities through donations and grants.