EIA is pleased to share this guest blog by Charles Emogor. Through EIA’s work to address transnational pangolin trafficking in West and Central Africa, we engage with Charles as a pangolin science expert on Nigeria.
Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the natural world and growing up in a rural part of Nigeria played a significant role in this. Surrounded by farmlands and secondary forests, my home in south-east Nigeria was a stone’s throw away from the Cross River National Park, where my current research is based.
I’m now studying for a PhD on illegal wildlife trade, focusing on pangolins, one of the many animals I saw on sale at wild meat markets during my youth.
Pangolins are the world’s only scaly mammals. They are mammals with eight sub-species, living in Africa and Asia, that have evolved for approximately 67 million years. They lack teeth and feed almost exclusively on ants and termites, making them evolutionarily distinct and ecologically important.
Sadly, pangolins also hold the unpleasant title of being the most trafficked wild mammal in the world today.
Demand and supply
Some scientists fear pangolins will share the same fate as the dodo, Mauritius’ flightless bird and the first known case of human-induced extinction (1681). Pangolins are threatened mainly by over-exploitation through hunting (although the Temminck’s pangolin, one of Africa’s species, is also seriously threatened by electrocution from electric fences built around ranches).
Research indicates that the high demand for Asian pangolins has resulted in a drastic decline in their numbers, shifting demand from Asian pangolins to African pangolins.
In parts of Asia, consuming pangolin meat and wine – sometimes made from pangolin blood and foetus – are a symbol of wealth and affluence. Their scales are another prized acquisition; used in traditional medicines, pangolin scales are considered a panacea, although they are composed of keratin, the same material that forms human hair, skin and nails.
Pangolins have long been exploited for food and medicine within Africa, but it is apparent that the demand from Asia for pangolin products, particularly scales, has fuelled escalating threats to African pangolins.
Pangolin consumption has also been recorded in other parts of the world. Until about 2000, the USA was a major importer of pangolin scales for manufacturing boots (costing up to $1,500), belts and handbags.
Guns, wire snares and pick-up
My research has given me rare insights into the activity of hunters, including those who poach pangolins. From my interviews with hunters, killing a pangolin is, unfortunately, not a difficult task – although as they become rarer, the challenge is seeing one.
Hunters who carry guns can shoot a pangolin when found. Wire snares are also set to target pangolins specifically or just any wild animal. However, picking up pangolins by hand is the most common technique, as the creatures roll into a ball and remain still when they sense danger. This defence mechanism is effective against natural predators such as mugger crocodiles and even lions, but unfortunately it is futile when used against humans, who now constitute the primary threat to pangolins.
Nigeria’s primacy in pangolin trafficking
Nigeria has been central to many reported pangolin and wildlife trafficking incidents, raising concerns about the fate of the three pangolin species existing in the country.
In 2017, a study found that, between 2010-15, Nigeria was the only African country on the list of the top 10 countries linked to the illegal trade in pangolins. Since then, there have been many more pangolin seizures linked to the country.
Nigeria’s primacy in pangolin trafficking persists, despite the country’s wildlife legislature banning the hunting, trading or possession of pangolins. Nigeria is also a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which prohibits any international commercial trade of wild-caught pangolins and their derivatives.
It is almost common knowledge that Nigeria is a global hub for the illegal trade in pangolins, but what really is the scale of the country’s involvement in pangolin trafficking?
Answering this question is crucial for effective conservation actions to combat the illicit trade, so I and other scientists and conservationists designed a scientific study to provide answers.
In our new paper on the degree of Nigeria’s involvement in pangolin trafficking, we present new evidence that approximately 0.8 million pangolins – from across Africa – would have been involved in Nigeria-linked trafficking from 2010 to September 2021. Nigeria-linked pangolin trafficking during this period involved more than 190,000kg of pangolin scales, with all in-transit shipments destined for Asia, particularly Vietnam, China and Hong Kong.
Our study involved curating all reported pangolin seizures linked to Nigeria, as well as interviews with officials of the Nigeria Customs Service. We also visited warehouses containing confiscated pangolin scales to identify which species the sampled scales came from, after that we assessed the proportion of the identified species.
Findings from our study are very conservative for two reasons. First, we used only reported and verified pangolin seizure incidents and, second, we restricted our analysis to seizure data which wildlife crime experts estimate to be between 3-20 per cent of overall wildlife trafficking. A study placed the global figure of pangolin trafficking, between August 2000 and July 2019 at approximately 895,000 individuals.
But as our research now shows, this may be a gross underestimation and the level of illegal hunting and extraction of pangolins may be unprecedented. Thus, community-led conservation interventions are needed to tackle the pangolin trafficking menace from the grassroots level. Robust and impartial law enforcement and criminal justice systems and international collaborations are also crucial interventions in combating pangolin trafficking.
The outlook for pangolins
Our recent study confirms Nigeria as a hub in global pangolin trafficking and cements the country’s place in efforts to combat the illicit trade. Based on findings from this study, we made recommendations as follows.
First, Nigerian Customs Service (and similar enforcement agencies in other pangolin range countries) should prioritise the detection and interception of illegally traded wildlife derivatives and train law enforcement personnel in illegal wildlife trade detection and documentation.
Second, wildlife laws in pangolin range countries must be fully enforced, with an emphasis on apprehending and prosecuting traffickers, which will deter other traffickers.
And third, governments of implicated African countries – especially Nigeria – should strengthen law enforcement efforts at seaports and land borders, invest in inspection equipment such as scanners and sniffer dogs and prioritise intelligence-gathering operations (in collaboration with relevant national agencies and non-government organisations).
Charles Emogor is a National Geographic Explorer and PhD candidate in Zoology at the University of Cambridge. He is from Nigeria’s Cross River region, where he was first involved in Cross River gorilla conservation before moving on to pangolin conservation for his PhD research. Charles has a BSc in Forestry and Wildlife Management and recently completed his MSc in Biodiversity Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford, UK.