Rare pangolins languish in China wildlife rescue system
By CHRISTINA LARSON
AP Science Writer
Thursday, January 24
WASHINGTON (AP) — When Chinese police found them in the trunk of a smuggler’s car, 33 of the trafficked pangolins — endangered scaly mammals from southern China — were still alive, wrapped in plastic bags soaked with their own urine.
But the fate of the creatures — whose scales are worth nearly their weight in silver on the black market — was not a happy one. Every last pangolin died in government captivity within a few months of the August 2017 seizure.
A pioneering environmental nonprofit in Beijing has launched an investigation, called “counting pangolins,” to figure out what happens to such animals recovered from the illegal wildlife trade. Its findings so far highlight discrepancies between environmental laws and outcomes.
China is hardly unique. The number of environmental laws on the books worldwide has increased 38-fold since 1972, according to an exhaustive U.N. Environment report released Thursday. But the political will and capacity to enforce those laws often lags — undermining global efforts to curb issues like wildlife trafficking, air pollution and climate change, the report found.
“The law doesn’t self-execute,” said Carl Bruch, a study co-author and director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C.
Each of the 33 pangolins transferred to the care of a government-run wildlife rescue center in China’s Guangxi province died within three months — according to records obtained by the nonprofit China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation and shown to the Associated Press.
What’s still unclear is what happened to their bodies.
Pangolins are insect-eating, scaly mammals — playfully described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “resembling an artichoke with legs and a tail.” Their scales — made of keratin, the same material in human finger nails — are in high demand for Chinese traditional medicine, to purportedly cure arthritis, promote breast-feeding for mothers, and boost male virility, although there is no scientific backing for these beliefs.
The price of pangolin scales in China has risen from $11 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in the 1990s to $470 in 2014, according to researchers at Beijing Forestry University.
Scientists have designated all eight species of pangolins as being at risk of extinction — four species in Asia, and four in Africa. More than 1 million pangolins were trafficked between 2004 and 2014 — for their scales, meat and blood — with China and Vietnam as the largest markets. In the last two decades, the number of pangolins worldwide has dropped by about 90 percent.
In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) adopted a worldwide ban on commercial trade in pangolins, and China later approved that ban. Pangolins are also listed as a protected species in China. While Chinese state-run media have publicized a few high-profile poacher busts, watchdogs say a thriving black market for endangered-animal parts persists.
In November 2017, customs officials in Shenzhen seized 13.1 tons (11.9 metric tonnes) of pangolin scales — reportedly the largest-ever seizure of scales from Africa — according to state media. The penalties offenders face are not always publicized, but in another case involving a smaller shipment of scales, two smugglers received prison sentences of five years, state media said.
“It’s significant that China has adopted laws against trade in many endangered species, but the law itself isn’t enough to protect a species from extinction,” said Jinfeng Zhou, director of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation.
Zhou wants the government to issue public records tracking all living and dead pangolins seized by authorities — and to offer evidence that contraband, including pangolin scales, is destroyed before it enters black markets.
“We are determined to know what happens to the pangolins,” said Sophia Zhang, a researcher at the biodiversity group. After reading news reports about the August 2017 poaching bust, she filed information requests to government agencies and traveled to Guangxi to visit the wildlife rescue center.
The Guangxi Forestry Department, which manages the wildlife rescue center, declined AP’s requests for an interview and comment. China’s state-run news service Xinhua reported in December 2018 that China remains committed to stopping pangolin trafficking, noting there were 209 pangolin smuggling busts from 2007 to 2016.
Less official attention has been paid to what happens after these busts.
In Guangxi, Zhang saw that pangolins were kept in small cages and fed cat food at the wildlife center, whereas wild pangolins eat termites. She said she had tried to coordinate with Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, a nonprofit, to bring shipments of termites to feed the pangolins, but the center declined the offer.
After the animals died, the center wouldn’t reveal what happened to their scaly bodies. But in other instances, the same center has turned over live pangolins to industry groups — including a steel factory in Guangdong province and a farm associated with a Chinese traditional medicine center in Jiangxi province. The government released this information on its web site.
In response to an information request from Zhang, the Guangxi Forestry Department sent copies of the licenses held by these organizations for handling pangolins. The reason for transferring pangolins remains unclear.
“We want the wildlife center to provide a full explanation,” Zhang said. “We know the trade in pangolins is very lucrative. The public should be able to know what happens.”
The biodiversity nonprofit has filed information requests about trafficked wildlife in nearly 30 Chinese provinces and has attempted to verify what happens to pangolin scales seized by customs officials. Zhang said wildlife rescue centers need better training to properly handle live animals.
“China has a rather complete set of environmental laws,” said Barbara Finamore, the senior strategic director for Asia at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC. “But environmental laws are not worth the paper they’re written on unless there’s also strong enforcement and oversight.”
Countries large and small, rich and poor, have passed extensive green legislation since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. “The world has made incredible progress in adopting environmental laws and environmental impact assessments, in creating environmental ministries and agencies,” said Bruch, co-author of the U.N. report.
Now comes the hard part.
“The legal framework is there in an enormous number of countries,” said Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist focusing on environmental policy at Villanova University. “But once you have all these laws, you need trained and willing personnel to actually enforce them. You need boots on the ground.”
Green mandates often go unfunded, said Barney Long, director of species conservation at Global Wildlife Conservation, a nonprofit group in Austin, Texas. “Many countries have laws stating the minimum number of park rangers that should be patrolling per square mile in national parks and protected areas. But these aren’t implemented if sufficient money isn’t appropriated.”
Non-governmental groups — like the biodiversity nonprofit in Beijing — try to help close the gap between environmental laws and enforcement action. But in many countries, this is dangerous work. In 2017, at least 207 environmental defenders — including forest rangers, advocates, journalists, and inspectors — were murdered for performing such work, according to Global Witness, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. and London.
There are some bright spots, experts say.
China is gradually releasing more environmental data to the public, especially on air pollution, even as the government clamps down on other forms of information. And more officials are being held accountable, said Jennifer Turner, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum in Washington, D.C. “Before local officials were only evaluated on economic performance — but now it’s harder to hide from environmental sins.”
Follow Christina Larson on Twitter at larsonchristina
Larson reported from China and Washington, D.C. AP researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing contributed reporting.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Out of touch? Trump aides struggle with shutdown empathy
By JONATHAN LEMIRE
Friday, January 25
NEW YORK (AP) — One White House aide mused that the shutdown was like a paid vacation for some furloughed workers. President Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law said employees’ “little bit of pain” was worth it for the good of the country. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross questioned why cash-poor workers were using food banks instead of taking out loans.
The president himself says workers simply need to “make adjustments.”
With hundreds of thousands of federal workers going without pay during the month-long partial government shutdown, Trump and his team, which includes the wealthiest Cabinet ever assembled, have struggled to deliver a full dose of empathy for those who are scraping to get by.
Ross set off howls when he was asked on CNBC on Thursday about reports that some of the 800,000 workers currently not receiving paychecks were going to homeless shelters to get food.
“Well, I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why,” he said. “The obligations that they would undertake, say borrowing from a bank or a credit union, are, in effect, federally guaranteed. So the 30 days of pay that some people will be out … there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it.”
In a subsequent interview with Bloomberg, Ross said he was “painfully aware” that workers were suffering hardships. He added that in his earlier remarks, he’d been trying to let workers know that credit union loans were available for those “experiencing liquidity crises” — hardly the language of those living paycheck to paycheck.
It all contributed to perceptions that the Trump administration was out of touch with workers bearing the brunt of the shutdown impact.
“Is this the ‘Let them eat cake’ kind of attitude?” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Or call your father for money?” With that, the speaker evoked Marie Antoinette and took an indirect jab at Trump for inheriting family money to launch his business career.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Ross’ comments “reveal the administration’s callous indifference toward the federal workers it is treating as pawns.” He added: “Secretary Ross, they just can’t call their stock broker and ask them to sell some of their shares.”
Deeming air traffic controllers who are calling in sick “disappointing,” Ross said that workers will eventually get their pay and that there is no reason why a loan would not be a reasonable option for workers who have been staring at zeros on their pay statements.
“Now, true, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest, but the idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea,” said Ross, whose financial disclosure forms reveal $700 million in assets.
The president said he hadn’t seen Ross’s comments but added: “I do understand perhaps he should have said it differently.”
Trump said the commerce secretary’s point was that grocery stores, banks and other local entities were “working along” with federal employees to ease the shutdown’s impact. He added that Ross has “done a great job.”
Other Trump officials have been more effective in conveying their sympathies for those affected by the shutdown.
“Nobody, including myself, likes the hardship caused, the temporary hardship caused by the government shutdown,” Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, said Thursday. “I have young people on my staff, devoted young people. You know, when you’re 28 years old, you don’t save a lot. I get that, and I think a lot of people have to get through this.”
Trump, for his part, has repeatedly maintained, without providing evidence, that federal workers support the need for a border wall even if it means going without a paycheck. The president did not mention the furloughed workers during his Oval Office address to the nation earlier this month and has said that government employees “will make adjustments” to get by.
Asked Thursday what his message to furloughed workers was, Trump said: “I love them. I respect them. I really appreciate the great job they’re doing.” He continued to insist that “many of those people that are not getting paid are totally in favor of what we’re doing because they know the future of this country is dependent on having a strong border.”
Kevin Hassett, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said early in the shutdown that some furloughed employees were, “in some sense, they’re better off” because people who were already taking vacation over the holidays ultimately would not be charged for their already-planned trip. Hassett has since said that his remarks were taken out of context.
Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and campaign aide, said this week that for the furloughed workers, “It is a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of our country.”
On Thursday, she tried to explain the comment, insisting to Fox News that “I am incredibly empathetic towards anyone right now without a paycheck” and blaming the mainstream media for misrepresenting her message.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Kevin Freking and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JonLemire
Are federal workers being forced into involuntary servitude?
January 25, 2019
Author: Michael H. LeRoy, Professor of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Disclosure statement: Michael H. LeRoy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Many federal employees are being ordered by the federal government to work without pay until a spending bill is enacted.
Some workers object, arguing that they are being pressured to show up for work with no clear prospect of a payday. Some individuals have sued claiming that this violates the 13th Amendment, which abolished involuntary servitude.
Will they win?
For now, the answer is likely no. In my law review article, “Compulsory Labor in a National Emergency,” I found that legal protections against forced labor often fail to help workers.
Why most 13th Amendment lawsuits fail
Every year, a small number of workers prevail in involuntary servitude cases.
The legal standard for arguing that someone is working against their will is evidence of physical or legal coercion. The Supreme Court articulated the standard in 1988 in a case about two mentally disabled men working on a farm.
The best way to explain the standard is with an example.
In Mouloki v. Epee, a nanny named Christine Mouloki sued the husband and wife who employed her for wages and damages. She alleged that the family refused to let her leave their suburban home near Chicago.
The court concluded that a “scheme, plan, or pattern intended to convince a plaintiff (person) that serious harm or physical restraint would result if she did not continue to perform the labor and services” constitutes involuntary servitude. At trial, the nanny won her case.
But plenty of involuntary lawsuits fail. The most common are from high school students whose school districts require them to perform community service as a condition to graduate.
In one such case, students were required to provide 50 hours of community service during their four years in school. Parents sued, alleging a violation of the 13th Amendment.
The court rejected the 13th Amendment claim, stating: “Graduation from a public high school is an important opportunity, but the threat of not graduating does not rise to the level of ‘physical or legal coercion.’”
Pressure, not coercion
Federal employees working without pay fall in the gray area between the high school and nanny scenario.
So far, their situation does not present the coercion in the nanny’s home confinement case. The main impediment for the federal employees’ case is that lack of coercion, not lack of pay for their labor. In a preliminary ruling, workers lost a motion for an injunction but they are scheduled to make a similar motion soon – and as time passes, their case improves.
For now, however, these employees can call in sick, take vacation time or simply not answer the phone or emails from a supervisor. A court would likely view an order to work without being paid as unfair, or a violation of wage laws, but not coercion.
University scientists feel the pain of the government shutdown, too
January 25, 2019
Author: Nicholas Bond, Washington State Climatologist and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington
Disclosure statement: Nicholas Bond does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Washington provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
I am very fortunate. My work involves research on topics of interest and importance (OK maybe I’m biased) related to the climate and oceanography of the North Pacific, and the weather of the Pacific Northwest.
My primary office is at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, in Seattle, Washington, in a lovely setting on the shore of Lake Washington. My coworkers are an interesting bunch of folks doing a variety of work ranging from the chemical oceanography of deep-sea volcanoes to the causes and effects of declining sea ice in the Arctic. This research involves the design and fabrication of innovative instrumentation, with most of this activity carried out in the laboratories and test benches on site.
It’s usually a bustling place. But these days, it’s been distressingly quiet.
The reason, of course, is the partial shutdown of the federal government, which has resulted in the furlough of “non-essential” employees of NOAA, a branch of the Department of Commerce.
I’m actually an employee of the University of Washington, so in principle, I should not be affected by the shutdown. But that’s far from the case, and my situation is by no means isolated.
The Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) at UW has about 115 employees – and 89 of them have a federal facility as their primary place of work. The JISAO contingent at the NOAA lab actually outnumbers the federal employees. And JISAO is just one of 16 cooperative institutes at universities in the U.S. through which academic and NOAA scientists collaborate.
As a principal investigator whose paycheck comes from the university, I’ve been more hampered than crippled by the shutdown. There remains a seemingly infinite amount of work that can be done: papers to read, current projects needing attention, proposals to prepare. Much of this kind of work can be done away from the office. And I must admit that I kind of enjoyed the first few days; if nothing else the phone hardly rings at the temporary office I’m using.
But now I am getting really peeved. I was counting on being able to make headway on a study of past cold-air outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest, and really need to use a web application maintained by NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory. Some other research in my pipeline requires climate model data sets hosted by NOAA, but again, no dice.
One might suppose that a slowing of the research being conducted in my field is no big deal. But there are ramifications.
Take weather forecasting. Both day-to-day forecasts and seasonal projections rely on complex computer models. These models need care and feeding; there is continual development and improvement carried out by a cadre of federal and nonfederal (academic and contractor) types. All of this is basically on hold. To be sure, forecasts are still being produced by National Weather Service personnel temporarily working for free, but it is a setback. And this kind of pause is happening all over the country, in a variety of disciplines, at research centers that collaborate with federal agencies – when the government isn’t shut down.
The work not being done will have some lasting effects. For example, a research cruise in the Atlantic Ocean scheduled to begin in about a month was going to include instrumentation for measuring various chemical properties including pH. Now it looks like equipment will not be able to be prepped and shipped in time. This will constitute a serious gap in the record.
It bears emphasizing that there are a variety of roles filled by JISAO personnel at NOAA, and the extent to which these individuals can roll with the punches associated with the shutdown also varies.
Support scientists employed by the university are in a particularly tough spot. These are the people who carry out the essential tasks of preparing and calibrating equipment, going to sea on research cruises – a duty generally less glamorous than the term suggests – analyzing samples in the lab, and processing and posting the precious data that we go to so much trouble to collect. There is not much glory here, but these folks are committed to what they are doing and take justifiable pride in their work.
As the shutdown has dragged on, and PMEL and other federal facilities remain closed, the options for these individuals have become increasingly limited. Those whose work directly involves equipment and instrumentation are especially in a bind. Many have been able to be productive by updating manuals or online training, but are running out of things to do. Those tasked with data processing and management often use specialized software on their desktop computers – this kind of work can’t be done on one’s laptop at the local Starbucks.
JISAO and federal employees work alongside one another, and the distinctions are usually blurred. In many cases, these folks have similar duties and tenures, and it’s not much more than a matter of chance whether one is a federal or nonfederal employee.
But now that distinction is important, because different rules are in play for the federal and nonfederal employees. Federal employees on furlough will be receiving back pay. This does not apply to JISAO employees, and for that matter, all their counterparts across the country associated with the different agencies being directly affected by the impasse.
If JISAO employees cannot carry out meaningful work benefiting the grant projects they’re working under, they must either find a project to which they can contribute (which is difficult to say the least), take vacation time, or worst of all in most cases, go on leave without pay.
Some individuals have already been forced to use leave or go without pay, with poor prospects for reimbursement, and I fear that their ranks will swell. JISAO is doing what it can on behalf of its employees, as are the other NOAA cooperative institutes, especially toward minimizing the “nuclear option” of forced leave without pay. Given the requirements accompanying university employees working on federal grants, that is proving to be no cinch.
Here’s a fervent plea for an agreement to be reached somehow so that we can get back to our regular work. I am chomping at the bit, and I expect that I speak for a lot of people.