A new report finds that West and Central Africa have emerged as major sourcing and export hubs for the illegal trafficking of elephant ivory and pangolin scales to Asia.
The report by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Out of Africa: How West and Central Africa have become the epicenter of ivory and pangolin scale trafficking to Asia, details how endemic corruption, weak or absent rule of law, low levels of development, and hotspots of armed conflict have left the region wide open to exploitation by well-organized transnational criminal gangs.
Since 2015, Nigeria has emerged as the world’s primary exit point for ivory and pangolin scales trafficked from Africa to Asia. During the past five years, it has been implicated in global seizures of more than 30 tons of ivory and 167 tons of pangolin scales – the equivalent of at least 4,400 elephants and many hundreds of thousands of pangolins.
At a time when the world is grappling with the crippling impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, such high-volume of trade in wildlife poses a serious risk for the spread of zoonotic diseases – those arising from animals – such as COVID-19.
Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), and Nigeria are affected by some of the highest levels of organized crime on the African continent; all three have well-established criminal networks involved in trafficking wildlife, humans, drugs, minerals, timber, and weapons.
“Given the challenges of crime and corruption in several parts of West and Central Africa, we need to act now before elephants, pangolins, and other wildlife disappear forever from this part of the world,” said Shruti Suresh, EIA Senior Wildlife Campaigner, in a statement. “West and Central Africa’s porous borders make the region exceptionally vulnerable to wildlife trafficking networks, but there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to tackle the problem.”
“As a matter of urgency, governments in the region need to address corruption, the lack of political will to tackle wildlife crime, poor law enforcement – particularly at porous borders and entry/exit ports – as well as the role of foreign nationals involved in wildlife crime operating in this region,” continued Suresh.
Key transportation companies identified as carriers for wildlife contraband include Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, and Pacific International Lines. Identified airlines include Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and Emirates Airlines, making it clear that strong collaboration between public and private sectors is essential to turn the tide against wildlife crime.
As well as documenting the huge volumes of ivory and pangolin scales smuggled from Africa to Asia, Out of Africa identifies Nigeria as a country of significant concern and lays bare the complex structure of wildlife trafficking and the roles played by rogue clearing agents, freight forwarders, and other key players who enable industrial scale trafficking of ivory and pangolin scales from Africa.
Poachers and suppliers in primary source countries – including: Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, DR Congo, Republic of Congo, Gabon, and Liberia – secure ivory and pangolin scales before transport agents arrange for shipment to Nigeria.
Once in Nigeria, traders work closely with shipping agents to clear shipments for export through major hubs, including Apapa seaport and Lagos airport, often choosing to use trans-shipment locations such as Malaysia and Singapore to ‘break the route’ and circumvent detection.
Repacking and switching Bills of Lading may take place through clearing agents during transit before onward transportation to Vietnam and China via air, sea, or land routes.
Fraudulent shipping paperwork is used to conceal what is actually being transported; pangolin scales and ivory have been exported under the guise of frozen beef, auto parts, seeds, cashew nuts, and ginger, while ivory has been smuggled within shipments of wood and even concealed inside hollowed-out timber.
On arrival in Asia, agents clear shipments to forward to the importers, who then sell the goods on to processors and/or end consumers.
All along the trafficking routes, corrupt officials at air and seaports play a key role, taking bribes to turn a blind eye and ensure the ‘smooth’ passage of contraband across borders.