- Title: Nigeria becomes Africa's staging ground for the illegal pangolin trade with Asia
- Date: 19th September 2019
- Summary: LAGOS, NIGERIA (FILE) (REUTERS) VETERINARIAN AND CONSERVATIONIST, MARK OFUA, RELEASING RESCUED PANGOLIN AT A CONSERVATION CENTRE VARIOUS OF PANGOLIN CLIMBING DOWN FROM TREE AND FORAGING
- Embargoed: 3rd October 2019 10:44
- Keywords: illicit pangolin trade pangolin scales medicinal pangolin
- Location: ONDO AND LAGOS, NIGERIA
- City: ONDO AND LAGOS, NIGERIA
- Country: Nigeria
- Topics: Environment,Nature/Wildlife
- Reuters ID: LVA002AXBP9P3
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text:In a rubble-strewn storage lot in the sprawling Nigerian port city of Lagos, customs agents crack open a shipping container crammed with scales from pangolins, a shy mammal prized in Asia for its use in medicines.
The scales being stored along with elephant tusks in the fetid container are part of a growing haul of pangolin cargos seized in Nigeria, a country that is now the main hub for gangs shipping African pangolins to Asia, according to law enforcement officials, non-governmental organizations and wildlife experts.
They say porous borders, lax law enforcement, widespread corruption and one of the continent's biggest ports have all helped criminal networks in Nigeria corner most of the African trade in pangolins, the world's most trafficked mammal.
This year alone, Hong Kong and Singapore have intercepted three huge shipments of pangolin scales weighing a combined 33.9 tonnes and worth more than $100 million, based on estimates of their value in Singapore.
Every shipment was bigger than any that had come from Africa before this year - and they all came from Nigeria.
Nigerian customs officials disagree with the idea their country has become a pangolin trading hub. Assistant Comptroller Mutalib Sule argues that pangolin trafficking through the West African country is on the decline.
"We have had about 8,000 metric tonnes of pangolins seized at a time here in Nigeria, but sometimes Nigeria is just a point of convergence," Sule says.
The country has its own population of the furtive creatures, living mainly in the thick forests of the southwest.
Here, generations of families have hunted, traded and made medicine from "akika", the Yoruba name for pangolins.
When the sun has set, Sule Ayinla stalks the dark, thick forests of Ondo Akoko in southwest Nigeria for pangolins, a torch fixed to his head.
Hearing a rustle, he fires his long-barreled gun at a tree, to no avail.
Taught to hunt by his father, he said the trade was getting tougher and it was becoming rare to find pangolins hiding in the trees where they typically find cover.
"We used to hunt pangolin here, there used to be lots of animals in this forest but they are scarce now. It is only once in a while that we see them," Ayinla says.
Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in some Asian markets and the pangolin's hard scales of keratin - the stuff of fingernails and hair - are dried, ground into powder and then used in medicines in China to treat ailments such as poor lactation, sores and rheumatism.
Demand for African pangolins in countries such as China and Vietnam has been growing as the number of Asian pangolins has dwindled over the years, to the point where two of the four Asian species are now on the critically endangered list.
The other two are endangered and all four African species of pangolin were classed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature when all commercial trade in the mammals, also known as scaly anteaters, was banned in 2016.
Many of the traders, particularly those dealing in animals hunted in the surrounding forests, said foreigners they believed to be Chinese were buying pangolins or their parts in ever greater quantities.
"10 to 15 years ago, we used to see plenty pangolins, but since the Chinese started coming to buy and we don't know what they are using it for, it has become scarce," says Ayedun who sells both the scales and meat along an expressway.
Experts say it's hard to draw definitive conclusions from data about seizures.
A surge in interceptions in itself could just mean law enforcement agencies are doing their job better, rather than there has been a big increase in trafficking.
According to TRAFFIC, which tracks seizures of more than half a tonne, 67.6 tonnes of pangolin scales from Africa have been seized throughout the world so far this year, already almost double the amount in 2018.
The Tikki Hywood Foundation, which rescues pangolins in Zimbabwe and Cameroon, estimates 1,666 of smaller white-bellied pangolins need to be killed for one tonne of scales.
When it comes to the giant pangolin, that drops to 277 animals.
So the 67.6 tonnes of pangolin scales from Africa seized this year and tracked by TRAFFIC would have needed anywhere from 18,700 to 113,000 pangolins to be killed, depending on the species.
The economic motivation for smugglers is strong. In Nigeria, a whole pangolin can sell for as little as $7.
But once in China or Vietnam, the scales from one animal alone can fetch $250, according to UNODC.
Yet Nigeria is not just a staging ground where pangolin parts are amassed from around Africa before being shipped to Asia.
Agbetuya Babatope Samuel, is a traditional healer and trader in the town of Akure in Ondo state.
"It will be very difficult to stop selling it here because they (pangolin traders) pay a huge amount of money...you know when you get money and you laugh to your bank," he said.
According to wildlife trade watchdog TRAFFIC, less than a quarter of major pangolin seizures from Africa came via Nigeria in 2016.
By 2018, that had jumped to almost two-thirds and three-quarters of the total weight seized was linked to Nigeria.
Other African countries known for pangolin trafficking such as Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda all say they have clamped down on the illicit trade as well - pushing pangolin traffickers to focus on Nigeria instead.
(Angela Ukomadu, Seun Sanni)
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