- On Wednesday 28th July, 2021, based on a surveillance and intelligence operation headed by the Wildlife Justice Commission, a Netherlands headquartered NGO, the Nigeria Customs Service seized 7.1 tonnes of pangolin scales and 846 kg of elephant ivory in Lagos.
- Also significantly, three West African’s were arrested, described as having “involvement in a well known transnational criminal network operating in West Africa”. Three of the hierarchy of this cartel, also referred to as “the Enterprise”, had been previously arrested and extradited from Uganda, Senegal and Kenya to the U.S.A. where they are awaiting trial for wildlife trafficking, drug and money laundering offences.
- The Wildlife Justice Commission have previously conducted similar successful operations in Laos, Vietnam and Malaysian.
- Nigeria has been the African egress port of preference for transnational wildlife crime networks since mid-2017, with high corruption, cheaper corruption costs, and a weak criminal justice system relating to wildlife crime.
NOTE: There is a discrepancy on the amount of pangolin scales seized with sources stating either 7.1 tonnes or 17.1 tonnes. From seizure photos and based on previous seizures and bag sizes, it is likely that this seizure was 7.1 tonnes.
Until 2017, Nigeria wasn’t even on the map of locations where international wildlife trafficking was evident. That all changed on May 29th of that year when Hong Kong seized a container with 7200 kg of pangolin scales. The possibility of that being an aberration were erased when 6 weeks later, Hong Kong made another seizure from Nigeria. This time 7200 kg of ivory.
To date, there have been over 30 known seizures of pangolin scales and/or ivory where the port of origin was Lagos. A few seizures have been in the area of 1 tonne in weight, most have been far in excess. Arrests related to this industrial poaching? Token at best with no known convictions since 2014.
From a Nigerian perspective, should they really care? Millions of tourists do not flock there for their wildlife. It is estimated that they have fewer than 500 elephants. As stated by Joseph Attah, the public relations officer of the Nigeria Customs Service; “the demand is not in Nigeria, the source is not in Nigeria and those involved, most of them are not even Nigerians”. Indeed, over the years, reports will show that only Chinese or West African nationals have been arrested and/or charged.
This case was no different. The Wildlife Justice Commission describe those arrested as “suspected of involvement in a well-known transnational criminal network operating in West Africa, linked to approximately 50% of all major pangolin scale seizures over the past three years.” Those arrested are identified as Traore Djakonba, Isiak Musa and Mohammed Bereta. The alleged head of the local operation, Berete Morybinet, is on the run. Reading between the lines, this is the West African cartel, known primarily for supplying hundreds of tonnes of ivory and rhino horn from all over sub-Saharan Africa to Far East markets since at least 2012.
What makes these arrests of particular significance is that it was not made through a tip off, or a random search but through an “undercover, intelligence driven operation”.
This was the Wildlife Justice Commission’s first foray into Africa. Known as a heavy weight in the field of international wildlife crime investigations, they had many previous successes under their belt from similar operations in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. They brought their expertise and success with them and did not disappoint.
The next stage in the process is now before the courts. It is known that the West African cartel pays to have justice subverted in their favour. Should that tactic not work, the court process will likely be a long and drawn out affair with only the best advocates hired. Even if a conviction is eventually registered, the sentence will be nothing like what is provided for in other African countries where wildlife crime impacts on the tourist dollar.
In all likelihood, those charged will be facing offences under the Nigerian Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) where the penalties are the stiffest, if a 5 year jail term is considered stiff. It could, of course, take many years to reach that stage. The laws relating to wildlife crime in Nigeria are not strong, detailed in exemplary fashion in the recently published EIA report: “Combating Wildlife Crime in Nigeria, An Analysis of the Criminal Justice Legislative Framework.”
This arrest and seizure will surely be more than symbolic, but a clear indicator that much more work is required by international actors in the conservation and justice fields.
Joint operation with Nigeria Customs Service leads to three arrests, seizure of 7.1 tonnes of pangolin scales and 846 kg of ivory
The arrested individuals are suspected of involvement in a well-known transnational criminal network operating in West Africa, linked to approximately 50% of all major pangolin scale seizures over the past three years. These arrests have severely disrupted this network.
Ninth largest seizure of scales
Seizures of pangolin scales ranked by quantities seized 2019-2021
3 Apr 2019
8 Apr 2019
21 Jul 2019
19 Jan 2020
21 Jan 2021
22 Mar 2019
16 Jan 2019
Hong Kong SAR
28 Jul 2021
The persistent trafficking of pangolin scales
It takes a network to defeat a network
Customs Intercept N22.3bn Pangolin Scales, Elephant Tusks In Lagos
Nigeria seizes scales from 15,000 dead pangolins
- Authorities at the Nigeria Customs Service have announced the seizure of 7.1 tons of pangolin scales that smugglers were attempting to ship out of the country.
- According to customs officials, a raid last month in Lagos turned up 196 sacks of pangolin scales representing about 15,000 dead pangolins.
- According to the Wildlife Justice Commission, the the Netherlands-based NGO which provided intelligence to the customs service, the seizure is the ninth largest of pangolin scales since March 2019, and Nigeria’s third largest during that time span.
- Nigeria said it had arrested three foreign nationals in association with the bust.