In Nigeria, a decade of payoffs boosted global wildlife trafficking hub
Ini Ekott
4th March 2022
  • An investigation by Nigeria’s Premium Times and Mongabay has found evidence of systematic failure by Nigerian law enforcement and the judicial system to hold wildlife poachers and traffickers accountable.
  • Our analysis of official wildlife crimes data, supported by numerous interviews with prosecutors, environmental campaigners and traders at wildlife markets in Lagos, Cross River, Abuja, Ogun and Bauchi states, found a near-total reliance on minor out-of-court settlements in trafficking cases.
  • Despite numerous high-profile, multimillion-dollar trafficking busts at Nigeria’s ports since 2010, no one has faced jail terms as a result.
  • The reliance on informal payments to local officials encourages corruption, experts say, while sporadic crackdowns on wildlife markets have not stopped traders operating in the country’s commercial capital.

LAGOS — Nigeria has for years failed to hold wildlife traffickers and poachers accountable for their crimes, despite federal and state laws that criminalize the killing and trading of protected species, an investigation by Premium Times and Mongabay has found.

Our findings are based on an extensive analysis of government and court records and other public data going back to 2010, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of law enforcement reports covering five wildlife reserves in the country between 2012 and 2021.

In reviewing the data, we discovered a trend: For more than a decade, poachers and traffickers were often not arrested or traced. Most of those who were detained were not prosecuted, and in the few cases that made it to court, defendants were asked to pay a nominal out-of-court settlement fee and continued to operate after release.

After federal agencies initially refused our request to access the data, we obtained a submission by Nigeria to CITES, the international convention on the endangered wildlife trade. Nigeria’s customs service later released its records to us following a freedom of information request, and the National Environmental and Standards Agency (NESREA) provided additional information. Nigeria’s forestry department did not respond to requests for its wildlife crimes data.

We also interviewed officials, prosecutors, environmental campaigners and traders at wildlife markets in Lagos, Cross River, Abuja, Ogun and Bauchi states. Together, they reveal how Nigeria’s law enforcement and justice system has done little over the past decade to deter the perpetrators of wildlife crime.

A global trade hub

The global illicit wildlife trade has grown rapidly over the past decade, pushing some species to the brink of extinction. The World Bank estimates the trade at $7.8 billion to $10 billion a year, making wildlife crime the fourth most lucrative illegal business after narcotics, human trafficking, and weapons.

As a CITES signatory, Nigeria has banned the killing of endangered species in protected areas and the illicit trafficking of protected animals and body parts.

But the country has emerged as a leading source and transit point for a booming global wildlife trade. Attracted by its porous borders, high levels of corruption, transport links to Asia, and poor law enforcement, wildlife traffickers have made Nigeria a key exit point for ivory smuggled from Africa to Asia.

Between 2009 and 2017, the country was linked to almost 30 metric tons of seized ivory, and in 2019 at least 51 metric tons of seized pangolin scales originated in Nigeria, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Nigeria made its largest seizure of pangolin scales in January 2020, when officials recovered 9.5 metric tons of scales worth an estimated 10.6 billion naira ($25.9 million).

In 2021, the Nigeria Customs Service intercepted 18.7 metric tons of elephant tusks, rhino horns, pangolin scales and claws at various exit points across the country. In February this year, it seized 145 kilograms (320 pounds) of elephant tusks and 840 kg (1,852 lbs) of pangolin scales at a notorious market in the affluent Lekki district of Lagos.

EIA Nigeria report graphic
Graphic showing illegal wildlife trafficking routes into Nigeria, courtesy of EIA.

Such seizures are usually seen as a measure of the country’s success against traffickers. But not much is heard about the cases afterward.

Leads unfollowed

Our analysis of government records and interviews with officials shows that despite huge seizures over the past decade, no traffickers have served a jail term as a result. Records of 63 major interceptions at the country’s ports between 2010 and 2021 that we reviewed show only 11 cases went to court, and many remain unresolved. No arrests were made in most cases.

The three convictions the authorities secured, all between 2012 and 2013, involved Chinese nationals caught with processed ivory. They were each fined 100,000 naira ($240) as an alternative to serving a three-year jail term. Under the country’s Endangered Species Act, the fines could have been as high as 5 million naira ($12,000).

We found that authorities in most cases do not investigate the owners of seized shipments, even when there are clues pointing to their identity. Also, three years after the government promised to investigate how 34 shipments of wildlife parts intercepted overseas left Nigeria’s shores, we found no evidence that any such investigations had begun.

In acknowledging that most cases were not taken to court, NESREA, the lead law enforcement agency on wildlife offenses, said some cases were settled out of court through the payment of administrative fines, while others involved cargo that was “abandoned.”

Photos of the seizure. Photo credit: Nigeria Customs Service
Photos of a large ivory seizure from 2021. Photo credit: Nigeria Customs Service

“Most of the suspects … in those cases are usually [linked to] abandoned consignments,” Aliyu Jauro, the NESREA director-general, told us. “When they are about to be caught, they leave it and run away, so at the end of the day, the Nigeria Customs Service will just come to NESREA and … just hand it over to us. So, when you don’t have any person to prosecute, what do you do?”

The Customs Service, which also has powers to prosecute wildlife traffickers, said in a phone interview that after cases go to court, the agency has little control over the outcome or pace of the judicial process.

Customs officials started prosecuting wildlife trafficking cases in 2019, having previously handed them to NESREA. But like NESREA, its conviction record is poor. The agency brought only three cases to court out of 24 seizures between 2019 and 2021. It said one case resulted in conviction, but did not provide details of the sentence.

Sharon Ikeazor, Nigeria’s environment minister, told us that the conviction rates were so low due to a widespread lack of understanding of what constituted wildlife crime. “What are the endangered species? And what are the threatened species that should not be traded? It’s a lot of work we have to do,” she said.

All but one of the 14 seizures by customs officials recorded in 2019 remain under “investigation,” with none yet progressing to the courts.

“Bringing everyone together in this business is really absolutely critical,” said Oliver Stolpe, the UNODC representative to Nigeria. “It is very difficult to achieve cooperation, and cooperation is actually the quintessential ingredient to have successful action against wildlife crime.”

Compounding the issue

Law enforcement records reviewed by Premium Times and Mongabay covering four protected areas in Cross River state — Afi, Mbe, Oban and Okwangwo — and Yankari National Park in Bauchi state, show a similar pattern of low prosecution rates.

Between 2013 and 2021, numerous poachers were given the option of paying out-of-court settlements called “compoundment,” which allow local officials to collect fines in place of pursuing prosecutions.

At Yankari National Park, Nigeria’s largest, records show the elephant population has fallen from 350 in 2006 to about 100 now. Arrests spiked after state authorities partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and offered financial incentives to rangers. But in 2020 and 2021, elephant killings were reported again in the park for the first time since 2015.

In perhaps the most high-profile case in the park, Ilu Bello, Yankari’s most wanted elephant poacher, was in 2016 detained during an armed raid in neighboring Plateau state. But after he was transferred to Bauchi police custody, he was released without explanation. “We have not been told what happened, but we know he has been freed,” Nachamada Geoffrey, WCS’s landscape director for Yankari, told us.

Between 2013 and 2021, 65% of arrests of poachers in Yankari had not led to prosecutions, according to an analysis of WCS records, though this rate remains far higher than at other parks where data was available. Penalties were also lacking, with those convicted offered the option of paying compoundment fees of between 10,000 and 160,000 naira ($24 to $384) to avoid jail terms.

“The Yankari protection law is outdated, and the penalties need strengthening to act as a deterrent,” Geoffrey added. “If there are tough enough jail sentences … hunting and livestock pressure would be mitigated.”

With a kilogram of elephant tusk worth an estimated $2,500 (about $1,100 per pound) on the black market, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, conservationists and sympathetic officials say so-called compoundment encourages corruption, while the fines are too small to act as a deterrent.

“Compoundment seems to be a preferred option for settling these cases, but it does not provide enough deterrence,” said Inaoyom Imong, WCS’s Cross River director. “Cases that get to court hardly [ever] get to the end due to compoundment, lack of political will, and lack of evidence.”

Our analysis shows that suspects held on wildlife crime charges can pay as little as 2,000 naira ($4.80) to avoid jail terms for killing an endangered animal such as a wild chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) or pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla and Phataginus tricuspis). In many cases, poachers who were caught were not arrested due to a lack of vehicles to transport them, while those who were arrested were later released after officials complained of a lack of funding to house them in pre-trial detention.

In the Cross River state parks, we found a similar pattern of minor compoundment fees being paid in place of tougher measures. Of 401 arrests between 2012 and 2020, just 19 cases went to court and only seven poachers were prosecuted, while 70 arrests resulted in out-of-court compoundment settlements. In Afi Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the critically endangered Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), just one conviction out of 80 arrests was recorded during the same period. Similarly low conviction rates were recorded at Mbe, Okwango and Oban.

Prosecutions for wildlife crimes at the Yankari National Park, where WCS has operated for several years, are significantly higher than at other parks where data was available. Credit: Kabir Yusuf/PREMIUM TIMES.

“The [forestry] commission says it does not have funds to keep detainees and pay for legal fees of prosecuting them,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media.

“There is a whole gamut of issues, and we are working with the [national] government to address them,” Anthony Undiendeye, chairman of Cross River State’s forestry commission, told us in an interview. “Poor law enforcement may make it seem as if the government technically supports it. We don’t.”

‘Big money’

On Jan. 21, 2021, officials announced they had recovered a haul of pangolin parts at the port of Apapa in Lagos. It was the second-largest ever seized by Nigerian authorities.

On paper, the 20-foot container due to be exported to Haiphong, Vietnam, contained furniture. But inside, officials found the woodwork was being used to conceal 162 sacks of pangolin scales and claws weighing 8.8 metric tons. They also found 57 bags of elephant ivory and lion bones.

At an event announcing the seizure, Mohammed Abba-Kura, a customs official at the port, told journalists of the agency’s resolve to combat wildlife smuggling.

Court records show that customs officials notified the High Court in Lagos that they had completed their investigation on June 28, 2021. But as of the publication of this story, no suspects have been arraigned.

Ivory for sale at the Abuja Crafts Market in early 2022. Credit: Ini Ekott/Mongabay.

We found that customs operatives arrested the forwarding agent who processed the shipment but did not go after the owners of the cargo. Felix Olame, the suspect identified as the forwarding agent, was later released on bail and was not subsequently rearrested.

We also found that investigators did not act on tips that may have allowed them to trace the owners of the cargo by examining their phone numbers and company details, available on the export forms, with phone companies and the Corporate Affairs Commission. Court filings make no reference to the owners of the shipment.

“This shouldn’t be a difficult thing. Their phone numbers are there, and their company registration can be found,” one government official told us on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The Apapa case fits with a pattern we identified in official data of a failure to pursue leads that could lead to the prosecution of individuals and corporate interests behind major wildlife trafficking operations in Nigeria.

Officials we interviewed alluded to “big money” interests in the business that can make it difficult for law enforcement officials to follow due process. “These types of cases require those involved to be able to resist a lot of temptation. Because we know a lot of money is involved,” one official said.

The head of the customs enforcement unit at Apapa, Haruna Nasir, declined to comment.

Market trading

Foreign traders often visited Lagos’s Lekki Arts & Crafts Market, a mishmash complex of wooden stalls that has become a meeting point of sorts for operators in the illegal wildlife trade.

Before customs officials raided the market in 2018, wildlife products such as ivory and crocodile skin were sold openly. The market continues to operate, although most of its foreign clients have stayed away. Raw animal parts, shipped in from outside the country, are no longer traded openly as before, but processed parts remain on the shelves of the stalls here. Deals are still cut behind the scenes, traders said.

“Those behind the sales, some who shipped them in from Cameroon and other countries at that time, are still around,” a trader at the market told us. “They were never arrested.”

During a visit to the market in December 2021, we saw carved elephant ivory on display for sale — an illegal trade the government acknowledges exists but has failed to stop. Traders said that for serious buyers, dealers can source ivory or pangolins. Officials have not conducted a raid there for years, the traders said.

A similar market continues to operate in Abuja, the capital.

Ivory products on sale at the Abuja Crafts Market in 2022. Credit: Ini Ekott/Mongabay.

Asked about the Lekki market, which the government has repeatedly pledged to close, Jauro of NESREA said the agency was not aware the market was still operating. He promised to take action after reviewing our findings.

At the Epe bushmeat market some 74 kilometers (45 miles) from the Lagos mainland, we posed as a buyer interested in sourcing illegal wildlife products. One trader offered to source live pangolins for 20,000 naira ($48) a piece when asked about their availability. He displayed a live pangolin and crocodile during a recent visit and showed us images of recent sales.

“This is what I’ve been doing for years, and they know me,” he said, referring to the authorities, adding that he travels to other parts of the country to source the animals. “If you are serious, just deposit the money, and we will get up to 20 pangolins in weeks,” the trader added.

At the Epe and Lekki markets, traders brushed off concerns about how pangolins would be brought to Lagos through security checkpoints across the country. “That is not a problem. We can take care of that,” one said.

Tackling the problem

Experts point to several reasons for Nigeria’s inability to combat illicit wildlife trafficking and related crimes.

Officials don’t see it as a major problem, and many lack the skills to fight it. A 2019 assessment by the environment ministry found that wildlife trafficking is not identified as a priority for customs officers operating at the country’s ports, adding that “their focus is mainly on revenue, narcotics, and weapons trafficking.”

There is also a clear lack of interest in prosecuting cases.

“Yes, the laws are very weak, but the level of awareness amongst law enforcement officials is embarrassingly low,” said Adedayo Memudu, an official at the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, the country’s oldest conservation NGO.

Another problem is corruption. Banned animal parts are easily transported, and traders and officials said illicit payments remain a crucial factor in greasing the supply chain.

At the federal level, the laws governing international wildlife trafficking in Nigeria are relatively weak compared to other countries. Nigeria’s two main laws governing wildlife crimes — the Endangered Species Act and the Protection of Endangered Species in International Trade Regulation — allow for fines of up to 5 million naira ($12,000) and prison terms of one year and three years, respectively.

By comparison, a Chinese trafficker in Malawi was in 2021 sentenced to 14 years in jail. In Cameroon, a court in 2017 imposed a $500,000 fine on two people found guilty of trafficking 159 elephant tusks.

“People will not really be deterred from getting involved because they know that what [money] they’ll get from it exceeds that. And they don’t even mind serving one year and maybe coming back to their business,” said Olajumonke Morenikeji, a professor at the University of Ibadan.

Things are a lot worse in practice in some states. The official fine for killing an elephant in Ogun state, southwest Nigeria, is about 500 naira (about $1.20).

In the reserves, the National Park Services Act punishes hunting an endangered, protected, or prohibited species or hunting a mother of a young animal or large mammal species in a national park with three months to five years, with no option of a fine.

“They are not sufficiently deterrent and allow for compounding probably because wildlife crime until possibly the last couple of years was not perceived as a serious criminal offense,” said Foluso Adelekan, national program officer for organized and forestry crime at the UNODC in Nigeria.

Wildlife crime needs to be taken more seriously and more attention given to the laws criminalizing wildlife and forest crime to make them sufficiently deterrent, she added.

The government is now working on a new national wildlife strategy, drafts of which have focused on the role of corruption in allowing the illicit trade to thrive.

Yet some in Nigeria have questioned whether the new strategy will challenge the focus on small-time poachers and dealers. Morenikeji of the University of Ibadan said: “There are real men, real dealers at the top of the chain; nothing is being done to those people. They have not been found out or brought to book.”

Oge Udegbunam contributed research to this investigation.

This report, published in collaboration with Premium Times, was supported by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Henry Nxumalo Foundation, and The Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism.

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