Nigeria Customs and Wildlife Justice Commission Deal a Blow to the West African Cartel. An Overview.
Pangolin and ivory seizure chart from May 2018. Vietnam figures heavily as the destination country.

Nigeria Customs and Wildlife Justice Commission Deal a Blow to the West African Cartel. An Overview.

SEEJ-AFRICA THUMBNAIL:

  • 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.

An Overview

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.

Moazu Kromah, past leader of the West African Cartel with his sons Mohammed Kourouma and Kourouma Bangaly shortly after their 2017 arrest in a Kampala home. Kromah is in a custody in New York, Bangaly in custody in Kampala and Mohammed believed to be hiding in Guinea.

Joint operation with Nigeria Customs Service leads to three arrests, seizure of 7.1 tonnes of pangolin scales and 846 kg of ivory

4 August 2021
(from the website of the Wildlife Justice Commission)
 
July 28th, 2021: Acting on intelligence provided by the Wildlife Justice Commission, Nigeria Customs Service officers searched a residential address in Lagos on Wednesday 28 July, arresting three suspects and seizing 196 sacks containing 7,137 kg of pangolin scales, 4.6 kg of pangolin claws and 846.34 kg of ivory. All wildlife products were destined for export. This is the ninth largest seizure of pangolin scales since 2019.

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. 

Additional suspects are being sought in relation to this seizure, some of whom are believed to have already fled Nigeria.
 
The Wildlife Justice Commission wishes to congratulate Nigerian Customs for their quick response resulting in this outstanding outcome against a well-established transnational organised crime network. The truly horrific reality of this seizure is that even at seven tonnes, there were still eight other larger seizures in the last three years, and this network was responsible for at least half of them.
 
“We look forward to the arrest of the other wanted subjects and seeing proceeds of crime provisions applied to seize the ill-gotten gains of this network.”
 

Ninth largest seizure of scales

The 7.1 tonnes of scales seized in this operation stand as the ninth largest seizure of scales in the past three years.
 
 
Seizures of pangolin scales ranked by quantities seized 2019-2021
Date
Amount
Location
3 Apr 2019
12.9 tonnes
Singapore
8 Apr 2019
12.7 tonnes
Singapore
21 Jul 2019
11.9 tonnes
Singapore
Oct 2019
10.65 tonnes
China
19 Jan 2020
9.5 tonnes
Nigeria
21 Jan 2021
8.8 tonnes
Nigeria
22 Mar 2019
8.3 tonnes
Vietnam
16 Jan 2019
8.268 tonnes
Hong Kong SAR
28 Jul 2021
7.1 tonnes
Nigeria

The persistent trafficking of pangolin scales

Large-scale and sustained trafficking of pangolin scales is driving the species to the brink of extinction. Scales are sourced for use in jewellery and as a component of traditional Chinese medicine. Throughout 2020, Wildlife Justice Commission investigators were offered staggering quantities of pangolin scales, outnumbering the offers of ivory across all the organisation’s investigations for the first time. This clearly demonstrates the continued availability of pangolin scales and ongoing marketplace demand, despite COVID-19 travelling restrictions. The Wildlife Justice Commission also warned that wildlife traders were stockpiling their products in order to resume trade as soon as possible once restrictions eased — a concern sustained by seizures of massive amounts of pangolin scales such as this latest in Nigeria. 
 
In recent reports, the Wildlife Justice Commission has pointed out that pangolin scales are increasingly substituted for, and trafficked alongside, ivory, a trend the organisation identified as early as 2019. As ivory prices fall, traffickers are increasingly turning to pangolin scales; in combined shipments, the proportion of pangolin scales has surpassed the volume of ivory. 

It takes a network to defeat a network

This operation is a great example of how transnational wildlife crimes should be investigated, and the tangible results that public-private partnerships can achieve by working together to disrupt organised crime.
 
This operation is a major victory for law enforcement and for the Wildlife Justice Commission, but we must acknowledge that other actors will rise to take the place of those recently arrested. The Wildlife Justice Commission will use the evidence gathered through this arrest to continue our investigations into the trafficking of endangered wildlife and support the efforts of law enforcement agencies fighting wildlife crime. It takes a network to defeat a network.”………

Customs Intercept N22.3bn Pangolin Scales, Elephant Tusks In Lagos

Tola Adenubi, Nigerian Tribune
August 4, 2021
 
The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), on Wednesday, said it arrested three suspected smugglers in connection with different kilograms of Pangolin scales and Elephant tusks worth N22.3 billion in Lagos.
 
While displaying the seizures to newsmen in Lagos, the Controller General of Customs (CGC), Col. Hameed Ali, said the 17,137.44 kilograms of Pangolin scales (196 sacks), 870.44 kilograms of Elephant tusks and 4.60 kilograms of Pangolin claws were evacuated at a location on the eastern side of Ijeoma Street, Lekki, Lagos State after proper examination.
 
According to the Customs CG, NCS’s extensive collaboration yielded credible intelligence that triggered swift and comprehensive actions by the Customs Intelligence Unit and Headquarters Strike force.
 
He added that the seizures are in line with Section 63 “e” and “g” of Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA), Cap 45 LFN 2004 as amended, adding that it falls under Export prohibition schedule VI of the extant Common External Tariff, which prohibits their exportation.
 
“Nigeria is a signatory to CITES convention hence cannot be used as a transit hub. This feast is a testimony of what sincere collaboration between nations can achieve for our world and individual nations in particular.
 
“Already three suspects who are non-nationals have been arrested. They are Mr Traore Djakonba, Mr Isiak Musa and Mr Mohammed Bereta. The Kingpin, Mr Berete Morybinet is on the run thinking he can evade the long arm of the law. Security agencies at all entry and exit points are on red alert to track and arrest to face justice. He is therefore advised in his interest to surrender himself to the NCS,” he added.
 
However, he said the suspects arrested would soon have their date in court, as NCS would leave no stone unturned to bring them to justice. He said the Service would extend same treatment to any person or organization remotely connected to this or any illegal wildlife trade.
 
“While thanking our partners, especially the wildlife justice commission, let me give assurances of the Service determination to treat any and every information with the utmost confidentiality and swift appropriate action(s) to them this tide of illegality,” he said.
 
Conversely, he said ever-increasing and relevant functions of the global Customs community demonstrate the necessity of Customs actions to raise revenue, suppress smuggling and intercept the illegal movement of items that can compromise national security, economy, health and environment protection.
 
“Deforestation and depletion of wildlife especially the endangered species have been a global concern with nationals collaboration, sharing intelligence and expertise that would stamp out indiscriminate killings of endangered species.
 
“In line with global best practices, NCS has been in robust collaboration with embassies of US, UK, Germany with other quarterly meetings that provide a platform for shared experiences,” he added.
 

Nigeria seizes scales from 15,000 dead pangolins

Mongabay
August 7th, 2021
  • 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.
 
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 and 840 kilograms of elephant ivory. The haul represents about 15,000 dead pangolins and more than 80 dead elephants.
 
The contraband was slated for export to meet international demand for the wildlife products, said Joseph Attah, the public relations officer for Nigeria’s Customs Service.
 
“The demand is not in Nigeria, the source is not in Nigeria and those involved, most of them are not even Nigerians,” Attah said in a statement. “Nigeria as a nation is only being used as a transit route. To that extent Nigeria is collaborating with international partners to ensure that never again shall we be used as a transit hub.”
 
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.
 
By some estimates, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world due to demand for their scales and claws in Traditional Chinese Medicine. All eight species of pangolins found globally — include four species native to Asia and four from Africa — are targeted. All are listed on the IUCN Red List, with statuses ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered.
 
Nigeria said it had arrested three foreign nationals in association with the bust.
 

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