Corruption in central and west Africa allows elephants and pangolins to be illegally hunted, investigators say

We are working with conservation charity Space for Giants to protect wildlife at risk from poachers due to the conservation funding crisis caused by Covid-19. Help is desperately needed to support wildlife rangers, local communities and law enforcement personnel to prevent wildlife crime

Arjun Neil Alim
Thursday 31 December 2020 16:53 GMT
Two elephants comfort one another in a zoo near Nairobi, Kenya
Two elephants comfort one another in a zoo near Nairobi, Kenya (AFP)

A major new report has exposed the criminal networks that exploit corruption and poverty in Nigeria and elsewhere to traffic wildlife to Asia.

Research from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) shows that Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, is the principal exit point since 2015 for illegal ivory and pangolin scales destined for consumer markets in Asia.

Between 2015 and 2019, the country was linked to seizures of more than 30 tonnes of ivory and 167 tonnes of pangolin scales, the equivalent of at least 4,400 elephants and 167,000 pangolins. 

Criminal gangs implicated in the trade are also believed to handle humans, drugs, minerals and weapons.

The report, Out of Africa, says international transport companies such as shipping giants and airlines play a key role in the international wildlife trade, alongside ports and airports in west and central Africa.

It suggests that endemic corruption in sub-Saharan states including Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon has led to levels of poaching and trafficking that risk extinction for elephants and pangolins in the region.

Shruti Suresh, an EIA senior wildlife campaigner, said: “Given the challenges of crime and corruption in several parts of west and central Africa, we need to act now before elephants, pangolins and other wildlife disappear for ever from this part of the world.”

“West and central Africa’s porous borders make the region exceptionally vulnerable to wildlife trafficking networks but there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to tackle the problem.”

The EIA, a UK-based charity that investigates environmental and wildlife crime, was one of the 20 leading wildlife organisations to agree a joint declaration on conservation to the G20 last month, brokered by The Independent’s Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign.

The agency conducted undercover investigations in west and central Africa, concluding that local traffickers transport illegal wildlife products, mainly pangolin scales and ivory, to ports and airports in Nigeria and elsewhere to be smuggled to Asia.

The report claims that well organised criminal networks across those regions of Africa control the trade in illegal wildlife material out of the continent. In Nigeria, it details the use of bribery of local customs and security officials, as well as the ease of transferring millions of dollars through the country’s banks.

It also cites investigations in countries such as Gabon, which has one of the highest elephant populations in Africa and is a major source of ivory, and Cameroon, which lost 70 per cent of its elephants between 2000 and 2015 and permits a domestic ivory trade.

Pangolin scales and ivory are exported across the world through third countries, such as Malaysia or Singapore, to destination markets in Vietnam and China. Using fraudulent shipping documents, pangolin scales have been reported to have been exported under the guise of beef, car parts or ginger.

The EIA also obtained documents suggesting that major freight and shipping companies are used to transport goods to Asian markets.

They report a case study of two shipping agents in Nigeria, Messieurs X and Y, who work with traffickers to get wildlife parts out of Africa. Mr X sends them by ship from Lagos, often hidden between other produce, such as food and building materials, to Malaysia for treatment and repackaging before their final destinations.

Mr Y clears stock out of a Nigerian airport twice a week on flights to southeast Asia. He sources ivory from Cameroon for Asian customers and handles the bribes for the airport’s officials and security.

While the coronavirus lockdowns in African countries have impaired the trade in the short term, principally by preventing Vietnamese and Chinese sourcing agents from travelling to Africa, the EIA suggests that criminals are making use of the internet to get around Covid restrictions.

The report warns that given the role of the illegal wildlife trade in the spread of zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19, this issue should be seen as a national priority for African states already grappling with endemic corruption and weak rule of law.

Ms Suresh said: “As a matter of urgency, governments in the region need to address corruption, the lack of political will to tackle wildlife crime, poor law enforcement – particularly at porous borders and entry/exit ports – as well as the role of foreign nationals involved in wildlife crime operating in this region.”

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