Despite the unanimous agreement entered into by 183 nations—including Nigeria— under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to stop the illegal trade of pangolins globally, insatiable demand from Asia is causing the poaching of the mammals in record numbers, writes Josephine Okojie.
At 8am on a recent Tuesday, as the temperature soared to about 25 degrees Celsius dozens of traders and buyers trooped into the Oke-Aje market in Ijebu Ode town, for the day’s activity.
While traders were jostling for buyers, Bola Odumosun, a trader of traditional medicines, was already getting set for home. Bola had had a good day. Before 8am she had sold a highly priced commodity: seven live pangolins, making N42,000.
The pangolins were sold between N3,500 and N9,000 each, depending on their sizes.
“Each time I come to the market with aika (the Yoruba word for pangolins), I hardly stay for two hours,” Bola says.
“People buy a lot of it and I even get phone calls sometimes that customers are waiting for me even before I arrive at the market. Some pay upfront to get the aika,” she says.
Bola’s case gives an insight into the sheer magnitude of illegal pangolin trading and poaching in Nigeria.
The pangolin, which curls up into a ball when frightened, is the world’s most trafficked wild mammal.
With its appearance marked by large, hardened, overlapping plate-like scales made of keratin—the same material as human fingernails—pangolins are important to regional and global biodiversity.
“Pangolins are insectivorous, such that most of their diet consists of various species of ants and termites and may be supplemented by other insects, especially larvae,”Adeshola Adepoju, executive director of the Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria, said in a paper he delivered at 2018 World Pangolin Day in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
Adepoju said that because pangolins help depopulate the world of insects, removing them from the wild would cause a breakdown in the web of biodiversity.
screenshot of pangolins ads displayed on Nairaland-online community in Nigeria
Tracking pangolin cybercrime
Pangolin hunting and trade have long been prohibited in Nigeria under the Endangered Species Act Cap E9 LFN, 2004, attracting a 10-year jail term for offenders.
Despite the sanction, the trade and hunting are still on the rise in Nigeria and experts say they are increasingly driven not only by customer demand at markets, but by a booming illegal wildlife online trade.
Pangolin traders in Nigeria are now increasingly doing the online business underground under various guises, using code languages and temporary contact numbers to avoid arrest.
“Wildlife trading is becoming one of the biggest cybercrimes in the world,” says Solomon Adefolu, team lead, climate change and local engagement, Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF).
“There are several pangolin products displayed on various digital platforms that allow traders [to] buy and sell anything online. Networks such as Facebook and Instagram are also a market place for pangolin.”
To validate Adefolu’s statement, BusinessDay conducted an extensive search of various online platforms, and found at least two adverts selling pangolin scales on www.nairaland.com – a popular online community ranked among the 10 most visited websites in Nigeria by Alexa.com.
The first advert, placed on March 28, 2017, was registered by a male under the account name ‘Oladipos’ with the contact’s phone number and with an inscription – ‘I have reasonable quantity of pangolin scales for sale.’
Similarly, another advert for 5kg of pangolin scales was placed on the same platform on the 27th of September 2017, and registered by the account name ‘YungJo207.’
It had no pictures of the mammals on display but a contact phone number and a statement saying that the 5kg of scales were only available in Lagos, the country’s commercial centre.
BusinessDay attempted to call both sellers, only to find that the phone numbers were barred from receiving calls by the network providers.
“In most cases, the real pictures of pangolins are not used on online advertisements and an undocumented domain addresses to hide the identity and location of users and also conceal communication between the buyer and the sellers are often used,” Adefolu says.
He explains that the contacts who typically place the ads like the ones found by BusinessDay act as middlemen between buyers of pangolin parts (usually in Asia) and sellers of pangolins in Nigeria.
“Immediately a contact is made online, the syndicate operational machinery is activated and the locals in Nigeria and other African countries are contacted to source for the required pangolin parts, which will be transited to the buyers, who are mostly in Asia, through the seaports,” he says.
Syndicates connect to Chinese residents in Nigeria through WhatsApp messages and emails, a source told BusinessDay. They in turn contact locals that source the pangolins from Nigeria and neighbouring countries.
Thereafter, a member of the group arrives in Nigeria, transiting to Asia through the seaports after bribing some Customs officials, the source says.
A 2018 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) identified 106 online marketplaces and social media platforms for illegal wildlife trade globally, with 5,381 advertisements, cataloguing 11,772 endangered and threatened specimens placed on these sites worth about $3.9million.
IFAW research did not focus on individual countries.
“The internet has revolutionised the way the world exchanges and consumes ideas, information and merchandise,” Olajumoke Morenikeji, coordinator of the Pangolin Conservation Working Group Nigeria (PCWGN), says.
“It has facilitated illegal pangolin trade and other wildlife species.”
Morenikeji states that pangolins are sometimes advertised under the title ‘anteater scales’ across social media, as sellers attempt to conceal the illegal trade.
Nairaland did not respond to several emails sent by BusinessDay about pangolin ads displayed on its platform.
But according to experts, it would require commitments from owners and founders of online forums such as nairaland to monitor ads being displayed on their platforms.
“There are a lot of dimension and complexities involved in controlling ads on websites such as nairaland and the likes. It requires commitment from the owners to remove such ads on endangered animals as soon as it is being advertised,” Chris Uwaje, Africa Chair for IEEE World Internet of Things (WIoT) says.
Pangolins as delicacy, medicine
In Chinese traditional medicine, pangolin scales are believed to treat many ailments and diseases. These include skin disorders, infected wounds and even heart disease.
Similar beliefs also exist in some parts of Nigeria.
A survey conducted by Durojaye Soewu of the Department of Plant Science and Applied Zoology at Olabisi Onabanjo University, and Temilolu Adekanola of the Department of Biological Sciences at Covenant University, found that pangolin products were used in treating a total of 47 conditions in Awori community of Ogun state, further contributing to the decline in pangolin numbers.
Pangolin meat is also seen as a delicacy in Africa and Asia.
This insatiable appetite has led scientists to believe that a pangolin is being poached every five minutes—an entirely unsustainable speed—according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
As a result, pangolin species are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, the biggest inventory of the world’s threatened animals.
Nigerian hunters say they have noticed the drop in pangolin numbers in the wild.
“Seven years ago I usually caught aika (pangolin) each time I went for hunting. But now, I hardly see them in the bush again. I have been able to catch only five aika since January till now,” says Demola Adedenro, a hunter in Ijebu Mushin, Ogun State.
“My customers are always calling to know if I catch any one each time I go for hunting,” he adds. “Though it is expensive, the patronage is still very high because people eat it and herbalists use it for medicines.”
Of the eight species of pangolins that exists globally, four have been hunted to the brink in Asia. Only three species have ever been found in Nigeria.
They include the giant pangolin (manis gigantean), tree pangolin (manis tricuspis), and long-tailed pangolin (manis tetradactyla) species.
But according to the National Association of Zoological Gardens and Wildlife Park (NAZAP), the last sighting of the giant pangolin in Nigeria was over seven years ago, prompting concerns that the species may already be extinct here.
“Since the drastic decline in the four Asia species, poachers turned to Africa to supply tons of pangolins to the Asian market,” says Moses Oyatogun, senior lecturer, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta and treasurer of NAZAP.
Illegal trade still on the rise
In February 16, 2018, Nigerian Customs operatives seized 55 sacks of pangolin scales weighing 2,001kg, valued at N408.32 million, and 218 pieces of elephant tusks weighing 343kg and valued at 85.2 million at a warehouse in Ikeja, Lagos, South West Nigeria, arresting a Chinese suspect, Ko Sin Ying.
Less than a month later, another 329 sacks of pangolin scales were found, weighing 8,492kg and valued at N732.86 million.
According to a 2017 report from the international organisation TRAFFIC, Nigeria is among the top ten countries involved in the illegal wildlife trade.
Part of the 11.7 tons of pangolin scales seized by the Hong Kong customs officials that was hidden in a shipping container that originated from Nigeria. Photo by FactWire News Agency
Low awareness, weak law enforcement persists
Despite the severity of pangolin poaching in Nigeria and the effect on the ecosystem, many Nigerians have never heard of pangolins— including members of the law enforcement agencies.
“I know of pangolin as a bush meat but I am not aware that it’s an endangered species. I never knew it was illegal to trade pangolin and its importance to our ecosystem,” a sergeant in the Nigeria Police Force, who asks to remain anonymous, tells BusinessDay.
This shows the widespread dearth of knowledge about the mammals. Such lack of public understanding has fuelled the killing of about a million of these solitary, nocturnal creatures over the last decade, BusinessDay’s investigation found.
To halt the illegal trade of pangolins, home-range countries need to back the CITES’ mandate by enacting and enforcing stringent national laws.
Currently, there are no specific national laws on wildlife cybercrime in Nigeria.
But if the war against pangolin online trade will be conquered, the Nigerian government must come up with its own strategy to combat wildlife cybercrime.
Similarly, measures should be implemented to drive public awareness, as well as within law enforcement agencies.
Countries should also enforce laws on pangolins and other endangered species by prosecuting dealers and hunters.
In addition, there must be a global strategy to combat wildlife cybercrime, otherwise; this important creature will be gone from Nigeria forever.
This story was produced by BusinessDay and written as part of the ‘Reporting the Online Trade in Illegal Wildlife’ programme. This is a joint project of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Global Initiative Against Organized Crime funded by the Government of Norway. More information at http://globalinitiative.net/initiatives/digital-dangers. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.