Conservation news

Nigeria finds itself at the heart of the illegal pangolin trade

Pangolins are widely eaten in many parts of West and Central Africa. Photo: Eric Freyssinge, Wikicommons CC BY SA 4.0

  • Pangolins have long been hunted for food and traditional medicine. They are traded openly in bushmeat markets in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon.
  • Strong demand from Asia has attracted organized criminal syndicates to set up trafficking networks in Nigeria, and the illegal trade in pangolin parts has gone deeper underground.
  • Hunters and traders tell Mongabay that the impact of increased trafficking on pangolin populations is becoming clear as they are increasingly difficult to find in the forest.
  • Chinese buyers will pay anywhere between $3 and $20 for a pangolin — a relative fortune for local bushmeat traders. Traffickers can then get as much as $250 for the scales from one pangolin in markets in Asia.

EPE, LAGOS – A babel of voices hangs in the misty air over the Oluwo bushmeat market in Epe, in Nigeria’s southwestern Lagos state. Smoke curls toward women selling live fish from faded plastic basins, and flies buzz over cuts of bloodied meat. Traders are haggling over prices for porcupine, antelope, crocodile — and pangolins.

Bushmeat traders here tell Mongabay that when it comes to pangolins, their biggest clients are Chinese expatriates living in Nigeria.

“Most of our customers are the Chinese who come every weekend to buy,” says a 40-year-old who gives her name only as Egbawa. “They pay us to stockpile bags of scales for them. We used to have three and sometimes four of them every weekend. Sometimes they ask for live ones too.”

She specializes in descaling pangolins and says there are now far fewer of the scaly anteaters brought to the market. “Hunters control most of this supply. Without enough pangolins, there would be scarcity of scales. That’s what we are seeing today. The number of pangolins that come to this market continued to decrease every year.”

In less than a year, more than 25 tonnes of pangolin scales and 2.5 tonnes of ivory have been seized by customs officials in Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore in shipments originating from Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest commercial city. A further 13 tonnes of pangolin scales have been seized inside Nigeria.

In just one of these seizures, in April, Singapore Customs and the National Parks Board found 12.9 tonnes of pangolin scales, worth an estimated $38.7 million, along with 177 kilograms (390 pounds) of carved and cut-up elephant ivory worth approximately $88,500.

“The pangolin scales from the two recent seizures came from the four species of pangolins found in Africa,” the National Parks Board said in an email to Mongabay. “Previously, in 2015 and 2016, Singapore intercepted shipments in transit at Singapore and made two pangolin scales seizures, amounting to 440 kg,” or about 970 pounds.

Pangolin scales on sale at Oluwo market. Photo: Orji Sunday

African pangolins under pressure

In a press release on World Wildlife Day this year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) expressed concern that Nigeria is emerging as a transit hub for the illegal wildlife trade, particularly pangolins, which it said may now be nearly extinct in Nigeria. There is inadequate research to confirm this claim, but wildlife traders agree there are fewer pangolins being brought to bushmeat markets in Lagos, while hunters report they are increasingly hard to find in the wild.

“What we know is that there is a general decline in pangolins (globally),” says ecologist Jake Williams, the Asia program coordinator at the Zoological Society of London. “But what is very difficult about pangolins is to actually say anything quantitative about numbers because researchers don’t have reliable population data in the wild. And the underground nature of trafficking makes it even more difficult to track trends or insinuate figures accurately.”

Pangolins have long been hunted for food and traditional medicine. They are traded openly in bushmeat markets in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon. But strong demand from Asia has attracted organized criminal syndicates to set up trafficking networks in the country, and the illegal trade in pangolin parts has gone deeper underground.

While gauging the overall scale of the trade based on seizures is inexact, the growing number of interceptions is a worrying signal. A 2015 report into global trafficking of pangolins published by TRAFFIC, an international NGO that researches and analyzes the trade in wild animals and plants, found that at least 120 tonnes of pangolin parts and scales were seized by authorities worldwide between 2010 and 2015. TRAFFIC also found evidence that new smuggling routes were proliferating, stretching across 67 countries or territories.

Nigeria appears to be a profitable new transit point for this trade. In March 2018, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) arrested Li Chaomin, a Chinese national living in Nigeria, with 2 tonnes of pangolin scales and 218 elephant tusks in his Lagos apartment. He was the second Chinese citizen to be arrested with a large quantity of pangolin scales in Nigeria in the space of two weeks.

According to Nigeria’s Sun newspaper, Li claimed he had a permit from the Chinese government to import pangolins, but that he was unable to get export permission from the Nigerian authorities and so decided to smuggle the scales out to meet orders placed by customers in China.

Pangolins of all species are protected by local laws throughout their range, and international trade of live pangolins, their scales or other body parts is prohibited under Appendix I of CITES. Today, all African pangolin species are classed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, but the upsurge in reported seizures shows that legal protections are not being enforced.

There are eight species of pangolin, four each in Africa and Asia. The giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), black-bellied tree pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla) and white-bellied tree pangolin (P. tricuspis) are found across West Africa, including Nigeria, while the fourth African species, Temminck’s ground pangolin (S. temminckii), ranges across Southern and Central Africa.

Pangolins are widely eaten in many parts of West and Central Africa. Photo: Eric Freyssinge, Wikicommons CC BY SA 4.0

Globalizing trade

As demand for pangolins soars in Asia, and Asian pangolin populations come under pressure — two of the species are listed as endangered and the other two as critically endangered — it appears that the African species are now being fiercely poached to meet this demand.

“I strongly suspect that it is increasing because in a number of key demand countries there is an expansion of cultural traditions that value such products, the growth in middle class with greater capacity to purchase at a higher volume and the increase in the population of the region,” Williams says.

The growth of Nigerian and offshore syndicates working in mobile and complex networks poses a severe threat, says Olajumoke Morenikeji, who heads the Pangolin Conservation Guild, a biodiversity NGO focused on pangolin protection, awareness and research in Nigeria.

She says Nigeria is a useful hub for traffickers because of its porous borders and poor law enforcement. “There is a lot of bribery and corruption in the country and it is very easy for anything to come in or pass through. Law enforcement is not effective. Culprits are getting away and our borders leak,” she tells Mongabay.

Excellence Akeredolu, from the Department of Zoology at the University of Lagos, recently spent six months surveying traders, community heads, hunters and wildlife vendors about pangolins at Epe and three other bushmeat markets in Lagos state. Most of the vendors he spoke to said they had been selling pangolins for more than five years, with strong demand and high prices paid by both Chinese expats and locals. A majority said they’d entered the trade for lack of alternative employment. Hunters agreed that pangolins are lucrative business and acknowledged the animals were now harder to find in nearby forests. Nearly 70 percent claimed they didn’t know, or didn’t care, that the animals are protected by law.

In this context, it’s easy for trafficking syndicates to organize networks of local middlemen who work with local hunters and bushmeat traders to secure pangolins destined for Asian markets but collected first in Nigeria.

Some pangolins are caught when people come across them by chance while farming, gathering firewood, or harvesting and processing palm fruit. Hunters and bushmeat traders, who in the past only bagged pangolins as a delicacy for local markets, are taking an active role as scale suppliers and middlemen, and even illegally exporting pangolin parts themselves.

Traffickers know these communities well and circulate their phone numbers and offer good money to locals to let them know when pangolins are caught. In other cases, they pay hunters to obtain agreed quantities of scales or whole carcasses.

“This stage can be complicated and might involve many networks of middlemen,” Williams says. Expats, local fixers, informants and sometimes compromised law enforcement agents collaborate to drive this illegal hunting.

These pangolin parts or scales are then channeled into offshore networks supplying countries where demand is high. “It is these demand markets,” Williams says, “that drive the trade.”

Chinese buyers will pay anywhere between $3 and $20 for a pangolin — a relative fortune for local bushmeat traders. Traffickers can then get as much as $250 for the scales from one pangolin in markets in Asia, according to the UNODC’s World Wildlife Crime Report (2016).

Akeredolu says increasing numbers of well-off Nigerians, attracted to the profits, are now joining the trafficking, bringing new finance for hunting, and money and connections to thwart enforcement. “Some of the people involved are in authority. Others buy their way through litigations. They are not poor, we are talking about rich and influential people.”

Law enforcement at state and federal government levels is poor because the responsible agencies lack the means, will or exposure to track elusive traffickers. There’s very limited information available about the actors, the actual volumes trafficked and the trafficking routes used to transport pangolins locally.

Traffickers advertise contraband on websites and via social media, complicating efforts to track supply chains.

This lack of enforcement takes on added importance because of Nigeria’s growing role as a transit point, which impacts poaching in other parts of West and Central Africa.

That said, seizures of shipments destined for Asia, the United States and Europe, have also been recorded in most West, Central and Southern African countries with pangolin populations. In 2018, authorities in Benin, next door to Nigeria, seized 513 kilograms (1,131 pounds) of pangolin scales at Cotonou airport, according to local newspaper La Nouvelle Tribune. Other seizures of large quantities have been reported in countries including Cameroon, Guinea, Liberia, Equatorial Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda and Togo.

Most of the seizures also include other contraband, such as elephant ivory and rhino horns, underlining the broader threat that wildlife traffickers pose to global biodiversity.
Traffickers are also using technology to connect to more markets and communicate over vast distances in a way they couldn’t in the past. They advertise their contraband on websites and via social media, sometimes using codes and signs understood only by others within their networks. Tracking the supply through these channels is proving difficult for local wildlife investigators.

Hunters and traders tell Mongabay that the impact of increased trafficking on pangolin populations is becoming clear as they are increasingly difficult to find in the forest.

“I sell a maximum of 15 pangolins per week,” says Olofin Latifat, a mother of two who has been selling pangolins at the Oluwo bushmeat market since 1988. “In total, we sell up to 70 pieces as a whole in this market every week. But the problem is that we don’t see pangolins like before.”
Researchers, investigators and conservationists recommend a review of anti-trafficking laws to make them more effective. Traffickers’ mobile and continually changing strategy can only be matched by an intelligence-based law enforcement effort, they argue.

“The key to tackling the pangolin trafficking is an international approach,” Williams says, “because of the fluidity of the trade and the ease with which its products, networks and traffickers can move across borders. These approaches must be flexible enough to match that nature of the trade. There is no single country that might be able to … globally impact the trade.”

For Nigeria, it’s a question of scaling up awareness.
“Without awareness, people will maintain the old ways and continue to kill,” Morenikeji says. “People need to know more about pangolins. When people know, they are able to join efforts to protect the animals. Hunters, marketers and communities are getting changed in the presence of awareness

“We are happy that the story is gradually changing,” she adds. “More people are becoming aware because there is so much publicity about pangolins. That’s why, perhaps, a lot of seizures are taking place locally. The law enforcement agencies are stepping up. Before now, all seizures were usually abroad.”


Banner image: Pangolin prepared for cooking. Photo: Eric Freyssinge, Wikicommons CC BY SA 4.0

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