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Tracking white-bellied pangolins in Nigeria, the new global trafficking hub

  • Nigeria has in recent years become a major transit point for the illegal trade in pangolins, the scaly anteater known for being the most trafficked mammal in the world.
  • With the four Asian pangolin species increasingly scarce, traffickers have made Nigeria their hub for collecting scales and meat from the four African species and shipping them to East Asia.
  • In Cross River National Park, home to the elusive white-bellied pangolin, researcher Charles Emogor is working to both study the species and work with communities to end the poaching.
  • “Until our government faces up to the fact that we’ve become a staging ground for the pangolin trade, I fear we’re only going to see more cross-border smuggling of scales, and more pangolin flesh for sale in wild meat markets,” he says.

CROSS RIVER NATIONAL PARK, Nigeria — It wasn’t supposed to be this straightforward. For days, we’d crisscrossed rainforest-blanketed mountains, hacked through thorny thickets and corkscrewing lianas, narrowly escaped rockfalls, and become fodder for army ants beneath torrential skies — all to no avail. Now, here we are: only a 30-minute amble from camp along a well-trodden jungle trail, and less than three hours’ drive from one of Nigeria’s major metropolises. And yet we’re staring up at an eyeshine that Nigerian scientist Charles Emogor thinks “looks very promising.”

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Park ranger Cyril Ogar swivels his flashlight. Like a series of camera flashes, the arc of his torch beam momentarily illuminates a few snapshots of darkness-shrouded rainforest. The firework-shaped leaves of African corkwoods. The metallic glint of the rangers’ ever-present shotguns. And then, all at once, the white, spiderwebbing branches of an emergent tree that might just harbor the very reason for our visit. It’s little more than a hard-to-resolve silhouette and eyeshine, for now. But already, I’m praying it’s a pangolin.

“Its eyes are close together, like it’s got a pointy snout. That rules out pottos,” Emogor says with a grin.

The words have barely left his lips before he runs off the trail and into the dark undergrowth. I stay transfixed to the spot and raise my binoculars toward the mystery silhouette.

We’re in the Oban Division of Cross River National Park, the 2,800-square-kilometer (1,100-square-mile) chunk of rainforest on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, which flows into the latter country’s Korup National Park. The area is home to species such as the golden angwantibo (Arctocebus aureus), the gray-necked rockfowl (Picathartes oreas), and the critically endangered Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), the world’s rarest great ape. Our quest is to find — and, if possible, radio-tag — a white-bellied pangolin.

With their overlapping, copper-colored scales, scimitar-shaped claws and body-length tongues, pangolins have become so emblematic of the global illegal wildlife trade that we sometimes forget that they’re just small, wild mammals with a predilection for ants and termites.

Of the eight pangolin species found on Earth, the white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) is particularly suited to an arboreal existence. Also known as the tree pangolin, it has a strong prehensile tail for clinging to trunks and branches. Like the callouses on a rock-climber’s fingers, part of this tail has evolved into a thickened gripping pad.

“They’re such oddball creatures, you’d think they’d been designed by a child with an overactive imagination,” Emogor says.

A female white-bellied pangolin captured, tagged and released in Cross River National Park as part of efforts to understand the habits and home range size of the endangered species. Image courtesy of Charles Emogor.

Tons of scales

Nobody knows how many white-bellied pangolins survive in the wild today. On paper, the species’ range sweeps across a large brushstroke from West to East Africa and all the way down into northwestern Zambia and Angola. But on the ground, the scaly creature is confined to shrinking splotches of habitat. And scientists warn that it’s in deep decline. In 2019, the species saw its conservation status on the IUCN Red List worsen from vulnerable to endangered. It’s the hallmark of a species in free fall — and the illegal trade in Nigeria is puncturing the parachute.

Just three weeks before our visit, customs officials in Lagos seized 7.1 metric tons of pangolin scales bound for international traditional medicine markets. That’s 42 silverback gorillas’ worth of pangolin scales. Or 16 male polar bears. And yet it barely scratches the surface of Nigeria’s involvement in the global pangolin trafficking racket, a sweeping phenomenon that has helped cement pangolins’ infamous status as the world’s most trafficked mammal.

Scientists say that demand for pangolin flesh and scales by consumers mostly from China and Vietnam are the leading driver in decimating pangolins. Coveted in these countries as a luxury meat and for their use in traditional medicines — powdered pangolin scales are touted as cures for everything from joint pains to lactating problems — much less attention has been paid to the disproportionate role of other nations in coordinating the pangolin crisis.

As Asia’s four pangolin species have become ever harder to find due to the trade, hunting pressures have shifted toward Africa’s own quartet of uniquely evolved pangolins. And Nigeria has emerged as a heavy hitter mobilizing this transnational trade in African pangolins.

Emogor recently estimated that scale seizures of more than 190,000 kilograms — harvested from between 625,944 and 996,353 butchered pangolins — have been linked to Nigeria over the last decade. Some of these seizures were bound for Nigeria from other countries, others transited through or were confiscated inside its borders. But the picture that emerges is simple: Nigeria has become a major trafficking center for some of Earth’s rarest mammals.

White-bellied pangolin scales seized and stockpiled in Lagos, Nigeria. Nigeria has become a major hub coordinating the international trafficking of African pangolins, according to recent research by Charles Emogor. Image courtesy of Charles Emogor.

“We just didn’t think we would see such huge pangolin seizures,” Emogor tells me. “Nigeria has gone from being a pangolin consuming country to acting as a globally significant hub, orchestrating the shuttling of enormous masses of pangolin scales from across African range countries.”

Emogor, a Cambridge University doctorate student from Cross River state, is at the forefront of efforts to save the white-bellied pangolin in the wild. He says that without concerted conservation and enforcement efforts, the white-bellied pangolin won’t hold out for much longer, even in its verdant stronghold in the southeast of Nigeria.

He says overcoming the rampant hunting imperilling Nigeria’s pangolin populations will involve changing communities’ perceptions toward pangolins, and incentivizing their protection. To these ends, Emogor says he hopes to launch a payments-based community conservation program that rewards communities for protecting pangolins in the rainforest rather than plucking them out of it.

If we find and tag a pangolin tonight, it will add another key data point for understanding the wild habits and range size of white-bellied pangolins, providing vital information for their conservation.

Conservationists release a tagged white-bellied pangolin on a branch with a VHF tag screwed to its tail in Cross River National Park, Nigeria. The harmless device transmits periodic location information, helping scientists understand the range size these pangolins occupy, and their habits throughout the forest. This information can help identify key areas for conservation efforts to help protect pangolins. Image courtesy of Charles Emogor.

Locating the unlocatable

I’ve turned the thumbwheel on my binoculars. The park ranger, Cyril, is simultaneously using his flashlight to light up the canopy glinting with eyeshine 30 meters (100 feet) ahead, and to navigate Emogor’s beeline through the compact undergrowth between here and there. At this distance and angle, it’s still impossible to make out anything more than an amorphous shadow by torch beam. But we can tell the creature, whatever it is, is moving. Like floating candles, the eyeshine is steadily drifting skyward along a coiling liana.

When at last we properly glimpse the creature through a canopy peephole, it couldn’t be anything else but a pangolin. Its scaly back glimmers like a brass pine cone. Its long tail expertly counterweighs its rapid scramble through the latticework of canopy branches.

Emogor later tells me that some of his pangolin-tracking teams have scaled higher trees even than this one to bring the animals to ground and screw location-transmitting radio tags onto their tails.

“This one’s too speedy even for us,” Emogor concedes with a crooked grin, as the pangolin vanishes into the treetop. “You are lucky, not too many people have seen a pangolin in the wild.”

Charles Emogor attaches a VHF tag to a white-bellied pangolin’s tail. Image courtesy of Charles Emogor.

When Emogor first pitched the idea of a doctorate study into white-bellied pangolins, his biggest fear was that he wouldn’t find any. He had already spent nearly two years helping coordinate ranger patrols in Cross River as part of efforts led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to protect the critically endangered Cross River gorilla. Yet in all this time, he saw just two pangolins: both were slaughtered corpses for sale by the roadside.

To begin his research, Emogor knew he was going to need two things in abundance: luck and forest expertise. The latter he sought from community hunters, who knew the lay of the land best of all. The former was clearly on his side when Emogor caught and tagged a pangolin on his first night of fieldwork.

Since then, Emogor and his forest-hardened team of rangers and former hunters have roved over hundreds of kilometers of lowland rainforest, dangling camera traps on tree trunks and scanning canopy tops for night-roaming pangolins by torchlight. In total, they have now located 15 pangolins, building a unique data set that is already revealing new insights into the secret lives of one of the world’s most elusive mammals.

In August 2020, Emogor captured what he believes to be the first video of a white-bellied pangolin swimming in the wild. He proudly shows me the video on his raindrop-splattered smartphone as we shelter from an oncoming downpour beneath a sprawling mass of buttress roots.

“See how it uses its tail like a crocodile to propel itself across the water?” he exclaims gleefully, already replaying the video.

But while understanding the white-bellied pangolin’s ecology is helpful, it alone won’t save the species. The heavy lifting for preserving pangolins in Nigeria, Emogor says, comes from working directly with hunting communities, and persuading government officials to take enforcement against pangolin killings seriously.

Although strong on paper, Nigeria’s wildlife enforcement laws are virtually nonexistent in practice, according to Emogor. Despite federal law prohibiting both pangolin hunting and smuggling, very few formal prosecutions have taken place in the past decade.

Charles Emogor holds two dead pangolins possibly harvested from Cross River National Park and found in a neighboring community. Image courtesy of Charles Emogor.

As part of his own attempts to thwart future pangolin loss, Emogor recently furnished groups of hunters operating illegally within the national park with trail-tracking GPS devices. The hunters will remain anonymous. But he plans to use this hard-won data to help understand the sustainability of hunters’ harvesting patterns and the distribution of hunting efforts. He has also launched a pangolin education campaign in schools surrounding the reserve to convey the vulnerability of pangolin populations to hunting.

“Most people don’t know that pangolins typically give birth only after four to eight months of gestation, usually to just a single live young. This long pregnancy and low birthrate makes pangolins particularly vulnerable to high rates of offtake,” he says.

Increasingly, putting a dent in pangolin population declines is a job tugging Emogor from the green heart of Cross River National Park to the concrete jungles of Abuja, Lagos and beyond.

In fetid shipping containers behind fences topped with razor wire, Emogor roots through sacks of confiscated pangolin scales to quantify the linchpin role that Nigeria plays in the intercontinental pangolin trafficking surge. And in the towns encircling the park, he coordinates repeated censuses of wild meat markets to detect changes in the prevalence of pangolin slaughtering.

He says he hopes his research in the forests, markets and export terminals of Nigeria can help join the dots around the disconnected, veiled aspects of Nigeria’s pangolin trade. How much of domestic pangolin harvesting is for local consumption, and how much is to feed swelling demand from Asia? And in which regions is transcontinental demand the driving force emptying Nigeria’s forests of pangolins?

These questions are essential for coordinating effective conservation efforts, but one fact remains, Emogor says: “Until our government faces up to the fact that we’ve become a staging ground for the pangolin trade, I fear we’re only going to see more cross-border smuggling of scales, and more pangolin flesh for sale in wild meat markets.”

Nigeria was at one time home to stable populations of three of the world’s eight species of pangolin: the white-bellied, black-bellied (Phataginus tetradactyla) and giant pangolins (Smutsia gigantea) all used to be common sightings for Nigeria’s farmers and hunters. Yet in large parts of the country, the giant pangolin has now vanished entirely, a victim of habitat loss and overhunting.

“I often tell the hunters I speak with that if they continue to kill pangolins, the white-bellied will share the same fate as the giant pangolin,” Emogor says. “I just hope they listen in time.”

Pangolins on sale at a wild meat market in southeast Nigeria. Image courtesy of Charles Emogor.

Taking pangolin off the menu

The next day, sitting beneath the sweltering tin roof of a bustling roadside restaurant on the fringes of Cross River National Park, Emogor shows me the upshot of Nigeria’s lax wildlife enforcement.

Stacks of skewered porcupines lie smoking on a wire mesh above an open fire. Instead of their habitual barks, yips and grunts, duikers, putty-nosed monkeys and red river hogs now sizzle over the naked flames. All of this is illegal.

“The fact that people feel confident enough to advertise such illegal activity is testament to how shoddy enforcement has become,” Emogor says.

As we watch, cars pull over to purchase small bags of forest-derived bounty before continuing on their journey. Every half hour or so, a mud-splattered motorbike pulls into a sandy parking bay to peddle another batch of illegally hunted wildlife to the restaurant owners. At one point an altercation breaks out between a customer and a restaurant owner over the price of a plate of chopped porcupine smothered in red sauce.

Emogor watches curiously then turns his head toward me.

“Last week,” he says under his breath, “this place had pangolin on the menu.”

Banner image: Charles Emogor, a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, examines a white-bellied pangolin captured, tagged and released in Cross River National Park as part of efforts to understand the wild ecology of Earth’s most trafficked mammal. Image courtesy of Charles Emogor.

Editor’s note: This story was supported by XPRIZE Rainforest as part of their five-year competition to enhance understanding of the rainforest ecosystem. In respect to Mongabay’s policy on editorial independence, XPRIZE Rainforest does not have any right to assign, review, or edit any content published with their support.

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