The butcher grabbed a bag from behind a table with bloody carcasses grabbed – copper-colored diver, gray-black reed rats, a five-footed crocodile with bulging eyes – at the entrance of the largest fish market in Lagos State and a brown ball the size of a grapefruit.
“Pangolien. . . they pay good money, ”he said of Nigerian traders and Asian buyers offering the equivalent of $ 30 apiece – more than a third of the local monthly minimum wage – for a critically endangered animal whose scales are priced in some traditional medicine .
The butcher, who did not want to be named, is a small player in a global trade in pangolins estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Experts warn that the illegal industry is increasingly centered on Nigeria, which has grown into the most important game smuggling center in Africa in recent years.
“Because of the level of corruption, because our borders are so porous, because our law enforcement is not strong enough and because we are deep in poverty and people want something that will put food on the table, Nigeria has this transit center became, ”said Prof Olajumoke Morenikeji, head of the Pangolin Conservation Guild at the country’s University of Ibadan.
A number of high-profile seizures this year have made clear Nigeria’s key role in the trade. Authorities seized 7 tons of pangolin shells as well as more than 46 kg of $ 54 million worth of elephant tusks at a house in Lagos in July. In September, authorities seized another ton of scales in the city.
The Wildlife Justice Commission, whose intelligence work led to the raids, said the straps were both linked to a global network active in Nigeria and Central Africa that accounted for more than half of all pangoline and ivory seizures worldwide. .
The pangolin, a small, gentle creature that resembles an armored anteater, is considered by anti-smuggling groups to be the most traded mammal in the world, above African rhinos and elephants, tigers and abalone.
After repression and increased application in East and Southern Africa over the past half decade or so, the criminal syndicates that moved large quantities of pangoline scales to China have turned to Nigeria.
“There is no real investigative capacity aimed at this,” said Julian Rademeyer, of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
While trade in pangolins is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora treaty – signed by 183 countries, including Nigeria and China – the World Wildlife Foundation estimates that nearly 200,000 were poached in 2019 alone. UK-based traffic – the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network estimates that around 20 million tonnes of pangolins and their parts are traded each year.
The eight species of pangolins found in Africa and Asia are all protected, with two listed as critically endangered. The relatively high prices they charge make them an almost irresistible target for hunters in countries with few jobs.
“What we need is to provide a kind of alternative source of existence for these people so that they can feed their families, so that they can be okay without killing endangered species,” Morenikeji said. “African governments will have to do something about the poverty we have here.”
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak, Chinese authorities last year moved its own pangoline to the highest level of protection and banned its use in traditional medicine.
The decision came amid increasing research into the country’s so-called wet markets, where live animals are slaughtered for sale and which presumably play a role in the incubation of the virus before it is transmitted to humans.
But while China has sharpened its enforcement against human trafficking, wildlife advocates say there are loopholes and demand is strong. A 2017 report sponsored by the Chinese government found that the domestic game trade employs 1 million people and is worth more than $ 74 billion.
With Asian pangolins “On the verge of extinction”, according to Traffic, trade has shifted to Africa. Although some of the animals are caught in Nigeria, much of the trade originates from poachers bordering Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries.
The scales and ivory are packaged in shipping containers that are usually labeled as wood or other exports and shipped to Asian countries, including Vietnam, where wholesalers sell them to Chinese buyers. A Nigerian hunter might sell a single pangoline to a butcher for 4,000 naira ($ 10), while a kilo of scales costs more than $ 1,000 in China.
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An official involved in recent seizures in Nigeria has complained that a major reason why it is difficult to get Nigeria’s customs service to act on smuggling tips is “because it [the illicit trade] often involving customs agents ”. The Nigerian customs service did not respond to requests for comment.
Rademeyer said recent seizures in Nigeria were encouraging. “But seizures must be more than just an opportunity for customs authorities to hold a press conference. . . as is so often the case, or will they actually follow these clues and use them as evidence in a prosecution and a purposeful investigation into this network. ”