Illegal trafficking of wildlife is a multibillion-dollar business involving the unlawful harvest of and trade in live animals, plants or parts and products derived from them. Wildlife is traded as skins, leather goods or souvenirs; as food or traditional medicine; as pets, and in many other forms.
Illegal wildlife trafficking range from illegal logging of protected forests to supply the demand for exotic woods, to the illegal fishing of endangered marine life for food, the poaching of elephants to supply the demand for ivory and pangolin scales for sale. Traffickers illegally capture a diversity of irreplaceable species – rare butterflies and baby cheetahs, mahogany trees and hummingbirds, sea turtles and parrots – and sell them as meat, pets, traditional medicine or décor.
The methods used by traffickers to kill or capture animals and the way animals are handled are often extremely cruel and they fail to comply with animal welfare standards. Furthermore, many transportation and concealment methods are harmful to animals and many specimens fall ill, are injured, starve or die in transit. Trafficking live animals can result in high fatality rates for the specimens involved, especially if animals are stored and fed inadequately.
Endangered animals and plants are often the target of wildlife crime because of their rarity and increased economic value. Two of such animals are pangolins and elephants. Pangolin is a quiet anteater which is trafficked because of its scales and the elephant, the ivory. The rate at which these animals are trafficked is alarming. The Pangolin Reports states that roughly 50 tons of illegal African pangolin scales have been seized globally in shipments that contain both pangolins and ivory with pangolin scales surpassing the volume of ivory. This means that people buy more pangolin scales than ivory.
Corroborating this, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) stated that the high demand of pangolins has made pangolins the most illegally traded mammal in the world and all eight subspecies of the shy animal were threatened with extinction.
A report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) asserts that Nigeria has become the world’s largest hub for export of ivory and pangolin scales leaving African shores for Asian markets because between 2014 and 2018, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) climbed to the top of the list, at 30.5 and 21 metric tons. In that same period, Nigeria was connected to 167.6 metric tons of pangolin scale seizures — more than four times the DRC.
There is a geographic consolidation of trafficking routes across several markets, with Nigeria emerging as a key source/transit country for many shipments of protected species and products. According to a report of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Elephant Trade Information System to COP17, Nigeria is the second most prominent ivory exporting country of West Africa, functioning as a major ivory hub that draws in ivory from Central Africa and, increasingly, as far away as East Africa.
The report shows that there are four poaching areas namely Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Burkinafaso and Ghana with Nigeria having several unconfirmed movement towards her by bus transportation, trucks and canoe.
The report also shows that Nigeria harbours a large unregulated domestic ivory market. Open source research indicates ivory is being sold in Lagos in markets and hotels under the guise of woodwork and bead work. Processing of ivory products for export to China is takes place on a commercial scale (primarily bangles and name seals) using courier services or individual carriers.
The Elephant Trade Information System to COP17 report identified corruption among port officials as one of the reasons why Nigeria is such an attractive destination for smugglers of wildlife. In 2019, Nigeria was ranked at 146 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Shipping agents were reported to be charging premiums per ton for illegal wildlife product exports, paying higher-ranking officials up the chain along with others involved in inspection and border control measures.
Also, a UNODC’s World Wildlife Crime Report (WWCR) 2020, found that, in 2019 alone, at least 51 tons of pangolin scales seized globally originated from Nigerian ports, compared to only 2 tons in 2015. More than half of all seizures of pangolin scales worldwide were traced back to Nigeria in 2019. Large amounts of ivory flow undetected via Nigeria and have been seized abroad (approximately 29,173kg) including at least 13 large-scale ivory seizures outside Nigeria.
Another cause of illegal trafficking of wildlife is the low political will to stop the trade and lack of prosecutions. The Nigeria Customs Service has made a number of seizures and cases are then handed over to the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency but no prosecutions happened.
In a bid to conserve this engendered specie, a global ban on illegal wildlife trade was given in January 2017 but this did not change anything as there has been an increment in the seizures of pangolins. According to the EIA, there has been a fifty-four percent increase in the seizures of pangolins thereby showing that the world is becoming knowledgeable about the unlawful act. Nigeria is not left behind in creating awareness about illegal trafficking of pangolins as many reports have shown Customs seizures of pangolins.
A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2020 in Abuja between January to February 2021 confirms that officers of the Nigeria Customs Service at the Apapa Port Command seized a container bound for Vietnam with an unusual mix of illegal wildlife products containing the remains of various endangered species, including 2,772 pieces of elephant tusks of different shapes weighing about 4,752kg, 162 sacks of pangolin scales weighing 5,329kg, 5kg of rhino horns, dried and fresh animal bones, 103 kg of skulls suspected to be of lions and other wild cat and 76 pieces of timber (semi-processed and processed). Another case was recorded on August 4, 2021 where three persons with a large volume of pangolin scales and elephant tusks worth N22.3 billion in Lagos were apprehended and the CGC said the 17,137.44 kilograms of pangolin scales (196 sacks), 870.44 kilograms of elephant tusks and 4.60 kilograms of pangolin claws were evacuated at Lekki, Lagos State after proper examination. It is disheartening that despite the prohibition of these items on the prohibition list of the Customs, people still engage in this unlawful act.
Trafficking in wildlife has far-reaching implications which include pollution, deforestation, destruction of natural habitats and climate change. Trafficking in wildlife diminishes species populations and causes local or even global extinction. Further worsening the problem is the fact that the demand for larger and more ornate specimens means that hunters and collectors often aim for the fittest individuals from the breeding population, with serious consequences for subsequent generations. Illegal trade in wildlife negatively impacts a country’s natural resources and local communities that might otherwise benefit from tourism or legal, sustainable trade.
Wildlife trafficking poses health threats to humans, native species and livestock, especially if it introduces viruses, bacteria, or species to which native populations are not adequately resistant. This was one of the reasons why pangolins were prohibited as it was alleged to be spreading the novel corona virus. Exotic species that are trafficked also pose a bio security risk because they can potentially establish themselves in the wild and become pests. They also carry seeds, parasites, and viruses which, if released to the environment, would have negative impacts on native wildlife, and on the agriculture, horticulture, and aquaculture industries.
Wildlife trafficking undermines and threatens the ability and efforts by states to manage their natural resources. It can result in severe economic losses, which particularly affect developing countries that rely on revenue generated by legal trade. Wildlife and forest crime threatens rural livelihoods where people’s subsistence and income rely on wildlife, including those based on ecotourism.
Therefore, there should be increased law enforcement efforts directed at the domestic ivory and pangolin market, including sales to tourists, there should be improve detection and monitoring at all exit points to restrict the flow of illegal ivory and pangolins from and through Nigeria, corruption should be tackled among Custom’s officials, the DNA analysis of ivory should be done to aid investigation and ensure prosecutions for ivory trafficking from and through Nigeria.