Illegal wildlife trade

Trafficked to extinction: Cameroon and Nigeria

The Pangolin Reports

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Trafficked to extinction: Cameroon and Nigeria
Despite banning the trade in pangolins, business in Cameroon is still thriving in plain sight in some rural regions. In Nigeria, Chinese traders have taken over the market for pangolins.

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Cameroon: Grassroots poachers find new clients

In 2017, Cameroon banned the trade in pangolins. But despite efforts by law enforcement and activists in the Central African nation, we discovered that business is still thriving in plain sight in some rural regions. Pangolin meat can be found in many smaller restaurants along highways and in markets.  

A six-hour drive south of the capital Yaounde, in the small town of Djoum, we met a woman named Mango. She runs a bushmeat restaurant, selling wildlife meat including pangolins. 

But she is better known for her side business as a pangolin scales trader. She collects pangolin scales in large quantities from other poachers to supply clients in big cities like Yaounde and Douala, who deal with Chinese clients there.  

“I know it’s illegal,” she said, “but the business is good.”

At the market, we heard that prices used to be around $5 to $10 per kilogram 3 years ago. The price has since risen to $15.

Typically, there is a division of labor in poacher families such as hers, according to interviews with her and several of her competitors. Husbands hunt the pangolins and wives sell them on. 

Local middlemen roam the region, meeting women like Mango at their homes and buying their catch. They deliver the aggregate to typically Asian businesspeople in bigger cities, who smuggle the produce to Asia, local poachers and wildlife advocates said. 

Middlemen hide the scales in trucks that travel along changing smuggling routes to prevent detection by the authorities. “People used to use small vehicles to smuggle pangolin scales from one region to another, but now more are putting scales inside heavy trucks to avoid attraction,” Mango said.

With Cameroon’s southern border to Nigeria mostly shut, smugglers now tend to use air cargo shipments. Douala, a city with a sizeable Chinese community, is a favored spot for smuggling scales out of Cameroon, advocates and local law enforcement said.  

“Typically, there is a division of labor in poacher families: Husbands hunt the pangolins and wives sell them on.”

After reports of arrests and imprisonments, fewer people are talking openly about the trade. 

Increasing demand is taking its toll. In rural Mindourou, we met Danielle, a chef who has been cooking pangolins and feeding travelers along long-distance routes for more than 10 years. She said that pangolins are harder to get, because of the over-poaching.   

In the town of Bertoua, a six-hour drive east of Yaounde, we met traders who remain defiant that they will continue with their trade despite the risks of imprisonment. “The killing of pangolins will never stop,” said a woman named Mondi, a trader. “The community depends on the forest for their livelihood.”

Nigeria: Traders outdone by Chinese competitors

The Chinatown in Lagos, Nigeria, has bright red walls painted to resemble the Great Wall, and fluttering Nigerian and Chinese flags. Above the entrance are Chinese characters 中国商城, or “China Business City.”

Chinese-run shops sell everything from clothes to books to machinery. And some suspect, even pangolins.

“I have strong reasons to suspect that some of the scales may be stored there before they are shipped overseas,” said Olajumoke Morenikeji, an environmental biologist and professor at the University of Ibadan.

Morenikeji, former director of the University of Ibadan Zoological Garden, has studied for years how Chinese traders have taken over the market for pangolins because they pay higher prices than their local competitors.

“I have been in this business for many years, but I have never heard that it is illegal to sell animals that were caught in the bush.”

She said that local hunters are offered between 5,000 and 10,000 Nigerian naira for a pangolin, or about $14-$28. “That is a lot of money in Nigeria,” she said, adding that local traders are mostly unaware that middlemen profit many times more by exporting it to China. 

“The hunters go into the bushes or forests to hunt, usually overnight, and sell to middlemen who know how to get them to the urban markets,” she said. “It is from the urban markets that the Chinese hijack the product by out-negotiating the locals.”

DEMAND. This woman we met at market in Lagos is one of several traders openly selling pangolin scales there. Credit: Samuel Ogundipe/Premium Times

There have been cases in which Chinese traders also go into remote villages in search of the product themselves, she said, referring to an unexpected encounter with a middleman in the nearby town of Ikire. 

From Nigeria, the pangolin scales are being smuggled out to China, often via shipping containers that are falsely labeled, leading to large seizures in Singapore and Vietnam earlier this year.

In another recent case, about 120 kilograms of scales were found hidden inside damaged machinery en route to Antwerp, Belgium, according to a local official who was not authorised to speak on the record.

We asked the Nigeria Customs Service about their seizures of pangolin scales. In 2018, they confiscated 6.2 tons of elephant tusks and pangolin scales in 10 busts. Between January and June this year, they seized 667 kilograms of tusks and pangolin scales. They did not provide separate figures.  

“Roughly 50 tonnes of illegal African pangolin scales have been seized globally in the last 4 months,” estimated Peter Knights, the CEO of WildAid, an advocacy group. “In shipments that contain both pangolins and ivory, pangolin scales have now surpassed the volume of ivory.”

Interviews conducted at local bushmeat markets confirm that growing Chinese demand is displacing local traders. “The Chinco people have taken over the market and are paying high prices to take off all scales from the local market,” said one trader at Ketu Market in Lagos, referring to her Chinese competitors. 

When we met her, she had about 1.5 kilograms of scales left in her store, with a selling price of 10,000 Nigerian naira. All the traders we talked to claimed they did not know it was illegal to trade pangolins in Nigeria. “Our forefathers have used pangolins and other wild animals to make medicine and heal people, and we’re not going to stop now,” she said. 

“I have been in this business for many years,” said the woman at Ketu Market. “My daughter is now 23, and she was born into it, but I have never heard that it is illegal to sell animals that were caught in the bush.”

At Ijora Market, near the Lagos lagoon, many traders said they have run out of stock in recent months due to Chinese demand. They lamented that the scales no longer reach their markets, but went directly to Chinese buyers. (To be continued.)

This is part of The Pangolin Reports’ “Trafficked to Extinction,” a global report investigating the illegal wildlife trade of pangolins across Asia, Africa and Europe.

TOP PHOTO: A pangolin rescued from traffickers in Vietnam recuperates at a rehabilitation center run by NGO Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Screenshot courtesy of Centre for Media and Development Initiatives.

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