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As pangolin trade heats up, Nigeria urged to do more to crack down

Pangolin scales seized in Cameroon. Image by Keith Cameron/USFWS via Wikicommons (CC BY 2.0)

Pangolin scales seized in Cameroon. Image by Keith Cameron / USFWS via Wikicommons (CC BY 2.0)

  • Authorities seized 113 tonnes of pangolin scales originating in Nigeria between 2016 and 2019, more than half of global seizures.
  • Enforcement and prosecution of laws against wildlife trafficking remains weak, say experts, who emphasize the need to treat the matter as a transnational crime rather than as a conservation issue.
  • Training of Nigerian officials and exchanges with their customs counterparts in destination countries including China and Vietnam are expected to improve intelligence sharing and curb trafficking.

Law enforcement officials around the world have seized more than 200 tonnes of pangolin scales since 2016, more than half of it linked to Nigeria, a new report has found.

The report, published February by the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), identified 52 major seizures of pangolin products between 2016 and 2019. More than 130 tonnes were intercepted in 2018 and 2019 alone, indicating an unprecedented increase in trafficking, often engineered by organized criminal networks. In all likelihood, “significant quantities” of pangolin scales continue to be smuggled undetected across borders and oceans.

WJC, which works to tackle organized crime in wildlife trafficking, focused on seizures of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) or more, collecting and analyzing media reports, as well as conducting its own investigations to fully assess the extent of the illegal trade in pangolin scales.

The report identifies 27 countries and territories “disproportionately involved” in the trafficking of pangolin scales: just six — Nigeria, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — accounted for 94% of all intercepted scales.

The analysis points out that the most persistent smuggling routes connect Nigeria to Vietnam and Hong Kong, with Singapore emerging as a transit hub between these countries.

The total weight linked to Nigeria irrespective of role continued to increase throughout the period studied, rising from 10.4 tonnes in 2016 to 13.2 tonnes in 2017, 36.5 tonnes in 2018, and 52.9 tonnes last year. (The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime last year pointed out that with pangolins in Nigeria seemingly already hunted to the verge of extinction, scales smuggled out of the country to Asia may originate from poaching in neighboring countries.

Pangolin traffickers. Image by USAID via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Strengthening enforcement

Nigeria’s Endangered Species (Control of International Trade and Traffic) Act outlaws trade in pangolins. It was amended in 2016 to allow a maximum fine of 5 million naira ($13,000) or one year in prison for offenders.

But with seizures in 2019 easily outstripping 2018’s total, these penalties appear to be insufficient deterrent for either the wealthy syndicates involving Asian merchants and their Nigerian counterparts that drive the trade, or the hunters and bushmeat vendors who supply it, poaching pangolins from as far away as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Abimbola Animashawun, an intelligence officer with the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), says it is “worrying … that Nigerian law and penalty for such offenses is still too weak and this is not helping matters at all.”

Very few people have been convicted for wildlife trafficking offenses, despite occasional in-country seizures of large shipments of scales. Thirty-one seizures of illegal wildlife between March 2010 and August 2018 are recorded in a September 2018 submission to CITES, the global wildlife trade authority, from Nigeria’s environment ministry. But only eight of these cases were prosecuted, with three convictions: in each case, the court handed offenders a six-month jail sentence with the option to pay a fine of 100,000 naira ($260).

Enforcement at both ends of the supply chain is also hindered by corruption, according to Sarah Stoner, WJC’s director of intelligence.

“As in any major transnational organised crime, corruption is an enabler of wildlife trafficking, and from previous investigations the WJC has identified that wildlife trafficking is often synonymous with the presence of ‘compliant’ enforcement officials who facilitate the smuggling,” Stoner told Mongabay in an email.

“There is no doubt that transnational trafficking at this scale could not happen without corruption and it continues to be the greatest challenge in addressing wildlife trafficking.”

A raft of new initiatives, including workshops for Nigeria’s enforcement officers and international exchange meetings, has been implemented by conservation groups since 2017 to improve capacity for detection, interception and intelligence sharing.

For instance, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has organized workshops for Nigerian customs officials to help them search and thoroughly inspect consignments to improve detection rates for illegal wildlife products such as pangolin scales and ivory, thanks to funding from the U.K. Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund. Customs officials currently prioritize efforts to intercept contraband like rice, imports of which via land border posts have been banned since 2016.

WCS says it hopes the officers who received training will be better able to prevent trafficking of pangolin scales. Additional workshops are planned for Lagos and Port Harcourt this year, said WCS Nigeria director Andrew Dunn.

In September 2019, WCS also facilitated a visit to Nigeria by top Chinese customs officials to share intelligence about Chinese nationals and others identified as part of organized networks involved in the seized pangolin scales originating from Nigeria.

This meeting, Dunn said, will help both countries better coordinate efforts to tackle trafficking of pangolins and other wildlife. There are plans for a similar visit by Vietnamese customs officials in the first half of 2020.

With additional support from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, WCS is also working with Nigeria’s National Environmental Standards and Regulations Agency (NESREA) and the NCS to ensure that all seized wildlife products, such as pangolin scales and ivory, are properly catalogued in an online database and stored in secure locations around the country.

One of the WCS staff works directly with the NESREA in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to keep reliable inventory of all seizures, improve security of the stockpile to ensure that intercepted contraband does not slip back into the market, and make the data readily available for policymakers to improve planning.

White-bellied pangolin. Image by Darren Pietersen/African Pangolin Working Group

Stoner urges stronger international cooperation and demands that trafficking of pangolin scales must be addressed as a transnational crime rather than as a conservation issue. “As in other forms of serious and organized crimes, the application of advanced investigative techniques and intelligence analysis is largely not being applied to wildlife trafficking,” she said.

Stoner points to a recent large-scale seizure of pangolin scales smuggled via Cameroon and the consequent arrest of 20 suspects as a “good example of how high-level and closely coordinated interventions to effectively disrupt the criminal networks driving the global trafficking of scales are crucial.”

Stephen Aina, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation’s coordinator for species recovery and conservation programs, says he wants custom officials to explore the use of whistle-blowers for interceptions and arrests. But he says he also believes a more coordinated approach is required to address the trafficking of pangolin.

“Efforts within the country are at best disjointed and largely uncoordinated,” Aina said.

“There is the need for stakeholders to develop a pangolin conservation blueprint and action plan that will be binding on all actors … a nationally coordinated recommendation is key.”

Banner image: Pangolin scales seized in Cameroon. Image by Keith Cameron/USFWS via Wikicommons (CC BY 2.0)

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