The butcher grabbed a sack from behind a table piled with bloodied carcasses — copper-coloured duiker, gray-black cane rats, a five-foot crocodile with bulging eyes — at the entrance to the biggest fish market in Lagos state and pulled out a brown ball the size of a grapefruit.
“Pangolin . . . they pay good money,” he said of the Nigerian dealers and Asian buyers offering the equivalent of $30 apiece — more than a third of the local monthly minimum wage — for a critically endangered animal whose scales are prized in some traditional medicines.
The butcher, who did not wish to be named, is a small player in a global trade in pangolins estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Experts warn that the illicit industry is increasingly centred on Nigeria, which in recent years has grown to become the most important wildlife smuggling hub in Africa.
“Because of the level of corruption, because our borders are so porous, because our law enforcement is not strong enough and because we’re deep in poverty and people want something that will put food on the table, Nigeria has become this transit hub,” said Prof Olajumoke Morenikeji, head of the Pangolin Conservation Guild at the country’s University of Ibadan.
A slew of high-profile seizures this year has made clear Nigeria’s key role in the trade. In July, authorities seized 7 tonnes of pangolin scales as well as more than 46kg of elephant ivory worth $54m from a house in Lagos. In September, authorities seized another tonne of scales in the city.
The Wildlife Justice Commission, whose intelligence work led to the raids, said the hauls were both connected to a global network active in Nigeria and central Africa that is responsible for over half of all pangolin and ivory seizures worldwide.
The pangolin, a small gentle creature that resembles an armoured anteater, is estimated by anti-smuggling groups to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, above African rhinos and elephants, tigers and abalone.
Following crackdowns and increased enforcement in eastern and southern Africa over the last half decade or so, the criminal syndicates that move huge quantities of pangolin scales to China have turned to Nigeria.
“There’s no real investigative capacity that has been directed towards this,” said Julian Rademeyer, of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
While trade in pangolins is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — signed by 183 countries, including Nigeria and China — the World Wildlife Foundation estimates that almost 200,000 were poached in 2019 alone. UK-based organisation Traffic, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, calculates that about 20m tonnes of pangolins and their parts are trafficked each year.
The eight species of pangolin found in Africa and Asia are all protected, with two listed as critically endangered. The relatively high prices they command make them an almost irresistible target for hunters in countries with few job opportunities.
“What we need is to provide some kind of alternative source of livelihood for these people so that they can feed their families, so they can be OK without killing endangered species,” said Morenikeji. “African governments will have to do something about the poverty we have here.”
In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, Chinese authorities last year moved its own pangolin to the highest protection level and outlawed their use in traditional medicine.
The decision came amid increased scrutiny of the country’s so-called wet markets, where live animals are slaughtered for sale and which are suspected of playing a role in incubating the virus before it passed to humans.
But while China has ratcheted up anti-trafficking enforcement, wildlife advocates say loopholes remain and demand is robust. A 2017 report sponsored by the Chinese government found the domestic wildlife trade employed 1m people and was worth more than $74bn.
With Asian pangolins “on the road to extinction”, according to Traffic, the trade has shifted to Africa. Although some of the animals are caught in Nigeria, much of the trade originates with poachers in bordering Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries.
The scales and ivory are packed in shipping containers that are usually marked as timber or another export and sent to Asian countries including Vietnam, where wholesalers sell them on to Chinese buyers. A Nigerian hunter might sell a single pangolin to a butcher for 4,000 naira ($10), while a kilo of scales goes for over $1,000 in China.
An official involved in recent seizures in Nigeria complained that a key reason it was difficult to get Nigeria’s customs service to act on smuggling tips was “because it [the illicit trade] often involves customs agents”. The Nigerian customs service did not respond to requests for comment.
Rademeyer said recent seizures in Nigeria were encouraging. “But seizures need to be more than just an opportunity for customs authorities to hold a press conference . . . as is so often the case, or will they actually follow these leads and use this as evidence in a prosecution and a targeted investigation into this network.”