In the Nigerian port of Lagos, customs agents open a shipping container filled with scales from pangolins.
Pangolins are the only animal with scales, which helps protect their skin. The customs inspectors store the tiny, bony scales with many others.
An adult pangolin can be about the size of a small rabbit or large dog. They climb trees at night to eat insects. Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal. The animals are prized in Asia for their use in medicine.
Nigeria is now the main center for groups sending African pangolins to Asia, say police, non-governmental organizations and wildlife experts. They say open borders, poor law enforcement, corruption and the large port have helped criminals in Nigeria control most of the African trade in pangolins.
In 2019, inspectors in Hong Kong and Singapore discovered three large shipments of pangolin scales weighing a combined 33.9 tons. Estimates of their value go up to $100 million.
All three shipments came from Nigeria.
The wildlife trade watchdog group TRAFFIC says less than 25 percent of major pangolin seizures passed through Nigeria in 2016. By 2018, that had jumped to almost 66 percent.
“Traffickers like Nigeria more than anywhere else ... they prefer to go there because it makes it easier for them to export,” said Eric Kaba Tah. He is with The Last Great Ape Organization, a wildlife law enforcement group in Cameroon.
“The situation for pangolins is becoming more and more serious and even more dangerous,” said Tah. He has helped fight the pangolin trade in Cameroon, which was once another main trafficking center.
Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda all say they have pushed hard to stop the trade, so the pangolin traffickers have all gone to Nigeria.
Pangolin meat is considered a tasty treat in some Asian markets. The pangolin’s scales are dried, crushed into fine particles, and put in medicines in China.
In countries such as China and Vietnam, demand for African pangolins has been growing as the number of Asian pangolins has fallen over the years. All four kinds of Asian pangolins are now endangered.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers all four African species of pangolins as vulnerable. All commercial trade in pangolins was banned in 2016.
“At the rate at which pangolins are being traded,” Ray Jansen said, in will take about 20 years until the animal dies out. Jansen is chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group in Pretoria.
Nigerian customs officials disagree with the idea their country has become a center for illegal pangolin trading. Assistant Comptroller Mutalib Sule argues that pangolin trafficking through the country is lessening.
“There is tight effort at the borders to ensure that such things do not come in again,” he told the Reuters news agency.
Customs officials in Nigeria report that agents seized 927 kilograms of pangolin goods in 2016, and 402 kilograms in 2017. But in 2018, they seized 12.3 tons.
Experts say it is difficult to really understand the trade based on the seizures. Has trafficking increased? Or are customs agents just doing their jobs better?
But TRAFFIC’s Sone Nnoke said the number of seizures of pangolin products that pass through Nigeria means the country is now the center of the illegal trade.
Ray Jansen at the African Pangolin Working Group said seizures very likely only represent about 10 percent of the actual trade in pangolin scales. He believes the seizures in Nigeria are a concern.
TRAFFIC reports that the number of seizures this year is already two times as high as in 2018.
The economics of the illegal trade is clear. In Nigeria, a pangolin can sell for as little as $7. In China or Vietnam, the scales from one animal can sell for $250.
I’m Susan Shand.
The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
scale – n. one of many small thin, bony objects that cover the bodies of some animals
mammal – n. an animal that feeds milk to its young and that usually has hair covering most of its skin
watchdog – n. a person or organization that makes sure that companies or governments are not doing anything illegal or wrong
vulnerable – adj. open to attack, harm, or damage
commercial – adj. occupied with or involving business