The Nation online (Nigeria)

Ivory trafficking: Nigeria as Africa’s clearing point

With the debate on global ivory trafficking and trade rising TAIWO ALIMI investigates the illegal business in Nigeria.

Repentant elephant poacher Issa, (not real name) grew up in the midst of elephants. “I see elephants graze on our farm in Walakeroi (a remote village within 10km of Yankari, Bauchi State) when I was growing up,” he said. “Elders often meet to discuss how to kill them. So, hunting elephants became a normal occurrence. It is either we deal with them, or lose our crops. In 2007, a friend invited me to poach elephants for money and that became my livelihood for some years.”

Living around Yankari Game Reserve (YGR) exposed young Issa to wildlife. “I can hunt down the biggest and fiercest of animals,” he said.

YGR is home to the largest herd of elephants in Nigeria, today. The last aerial census conducted by the conservation manager, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in 2012, put the figure of elephants below 400.

It pales in comparison to the glorious era of YGR (before 2006) when elephants were in their thousands and YGR the toast of the world.

Between 2006 and 2012, YGR was neglected by the then owner -the federal government- and poachers like Issa had a field day collecting prized elephant tusks in their hundreds.

According to WCS Landscape Director-Yankari, Geoffrey Nachamada, the 2244km flora and fauna (about ¾ of Lagos State) lose considerable number of elephants during the years of neglect. “We believe that lots of elephants were killed in Yankari between 2006 and 2012. A conservative number is about 20 elephants per year in Yankari alone. Scores more were poached in nearby forests like Kebbi, Kanji, Lake Chad region, and in the western parts of the country, near the Cameroon border, Ondo, and Ogun States.”

Globally, the numbers are horrific: around 20,000 African elephants are killed by poachers each year. Savanna elephant numbers have declined by a third from 2007 to 2014.

Issa gives an insight into their modus operandi. “We work in groups armed with hunting guns. Sometimes, we track elephants for many days. I was trained to be patient. When we locate their paths we camp there, waiting for them to stray close before taking aim. Once we register shots, we stalk the dying ones and remove their tusks. We are not after their meat, but their tusks.”

He reveals that contract poachers often come beyond the borders to wreak more havoc. “Poachers are contracted from neighbouring countries. They come from Niger, Chad and neighbouring states and are more deadly than us. They are responsible for most killings in Yankari and Kebbi areas. There is no one to stop them. They are businesslike and carry sophisticated weapons than us,” Issa said.

Confirming this, Country Director of WCS, Andrew Dunn, who has been working in Africa since 1989 and in the forefront of keeping elephants alive, says there are daring poachers even locally. “There are some quite determined ruthless poachers around Yankari. They come from neigbouring states: from Plateau State and these guys are full time poachers. They are very determined and if they see rangers they shoot because ivory is expensive and the rewards are high, so the poachers are more determined and the risk for rangers is greater.”

Issa gets between $60 and $100 (N21,600 and N36,000) depending on the butchery.

Elephant poaching has also taken him to Kebbi, Lake Chad basin and bordering countries; “I worked in Kebbi, Lake Chad area and Cameroon, Chad, Niger and whenever we go outside Nigeria, we get more money. We are treated like mercenaries.”

Issa’s friend doubles as poacher and middleman for ‘boss’ or ‘big man’ as the person who hands out the contract is called. ‘Big man’ lives in the city and he gets custody of the ivory which are taken to Lagos and sold in the local ivory market or directly to Asian businessmen who smuggle them abroad.

When WCS took over YGR wildlife in 2013, more rangers were recruited and trained. The local laws were upgraded to give tougher penalties for offenders. So effective was their activities that elephant poaching was cut down to near zero.

“With improved surveillance technology, trained and armed rangers, elephant poaching declined considerably. By our record, no elephant has been poached since May 2015”, according to Nachamada.

The decline

However, years of unabated raid decimated Nigeria’s herd of elephants badly. So much that by 2012 there was no single long tusk elephant in the massive savannah forest.

“Elephants are not like rabbits and rodents that multiply in short period, their gestation period takes time. What we can see is a steady recovery of elephant population. If we can maintain what we are doing now, YGR will again flourish with thousands of elephants,” he pointed out. “Right now elephant poaching is not a big threat for Nigeria, the big challenge is to ensure that they don’t graze in peoples farms making farmers and hunters to kill them.”

The real deal

However, the principal challenge faced by wildlife in the country now is ivory trafficking, which Dunn says ‘is the real deal.’

Though, activities of elephant hunters have been decimated, ivory trafficking is on the increase. Nigeria has become a hub for the illegal trade which is bigger than before. In fact, ivory contractors have found a haven in Nigeria, establishing themselves in major cities where they direct operations. They are involved in all chains of the business from sponsoring the killing of elephants across Africa, contracting mercenaries, cross border smuggling, making contact and bribing corrupt Immigration and Custom officers, and transporting the cargo to Lagos to send abroad.

“A lot of Nigerian ivory is intercepted when it arrives in China. So there must be some corruption there at the Nigerian ports, or fake paper work. These ivory come from everywhere in Africa to Nigeria. It leaves Nigerian ports and gets arrested in China, Hong Kong or Vietnam. Certainly, Nigeria is a serious transit point, which is very embarrassing for the image of the country,” said Dunn.

“Certainly, Nigeria is one of the main hubs for illegal wildlife trade in Africa.  Ivories are coming in from neighbouring countries like Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Benin and Niger and it is being smuggled into Nigeria and out of Nigeria mainly to China or to Vietnam. So it is sizeable.”

The notorious route to Lagos

More fingers point to Nigeria’s porous borders in the Northeast and Southsouth axis as the transit routes for the trade.

Solomon Adefolu, programme coordinator, Climate Change and Local Engagement- Nigeria Conservation Foundation (NCF) also fingers the massive and leaky land borders across the core north of the country.

“You need to go to our borders up north to see what is happening. There are multiple illegal borders and even the legal ones are understaffed.”

According to Martins Kure Abeshi, former Comptroller General of Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), of the country’s international 4,470km land borders with Chad, Cameroon, Benin, and Niger and about the 1, 500 identified land border crossings into Nigeria, only 114 covering about 4,000 km had approved control posts manned by immigration officials and other security agencies. “There are over 1,400 illegal routes, which are not manned,” Abeshi said, stressing, “Nigeria also has a coastline of 774km, which are largely unmanned.”

Investigation carried out by The Nation, reveals that hundreds of trafficked ivory come in from the porous borders like other smuggled goods. And they come from far and beyond. Sizable portion of ivory cargoes are smuggled through the Central African Republic, Liberia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Chad and Niger routes. For some of the countries without common borders with Nigeria, all they need do is to smuggle it into another border country with Nigeria. From here the cargoes are trafficked through the largely unmanned Nigerian borders of Sokoto, Kebbi, Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, and Cross Rivers states.

From here the cargoes are taken to Lagos-their transit destination in Nigeria- to be packaged and taken by ship or plane abroad or sold locally to ivory refiners or dealers.

The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) confirmed The Nation’s finding by linking the illegal trade to Lagos.

Official Customs document points to the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria, as Africa’s clearing house for illicit ivory. It unofficially labeled Lagos as the new Mecca for big-time ivory traffickers.

Lagos as transit point

The figures are indeed convincing. This year alone, major wildlife and ivory seizures made by the Nigeria Customs were in Lagos. On February 13, 218 pieces (343kg) of elephant tusks and 53 and half sacks of 2001 kg of pangolin scales, were seized from an apartment occupied by a Chinese in Ikeja, Lagos.

In less than a month, 329 sacks (8,492kg) of pangolin scales were seized from another residential apartment occupied by another Chinese in Lagos, on March 6. Two days later, another 78 sacks (1771kg) of pangolin scales were seized from the same residential apartment.

Later in May, four elephant tusks and four sacks (1003kg) of pangolin scales were seized in Lagos. Same month, a raid by Customs at the popular Oba Elegunshi Market in Ajah, Lagos turned up six fresh tusks put up for sale.

Barely a month ago, August 14, Customs enforcement team raided another residence in Ijegun Waterside, on tip off, and 10 sacks (738kg) of pangolin scales were confiscated.

In total, about 300 pieces (443kg) of elephant tusks and 14,005kg of pangolin scales have been apprehended this year.

NCS wildlife specialist, speaking under condition of anonymity said; “Nigeria is obviously a transit route, as we don’t have the number of animals being seized outside the country in our reserve. In fact, most of them are not indigenous to Nigeria.”

Dunn said the growing population and concentration of Asians in Lagos is aiding big sales there. “I am seeing some good arrests made by Customs. What I haven’t seen is prosecution. It is almost a waste of time arresting somebody with ivory if you are not going to prosecute that person, because there has to be a deterrent otherwise nothing would change. The fact that you can export things so easily from Nigeria is a threat to elephants in Congo and Cameroon and Gabon as well as Nigeria’s few elephants. So there has got to be a strong deterrent. Obviously customs, no matter how well they do their job, they would only detect a small percentage of the ivory and pangolins leaving Nigeria, so there have got to be strong prosecution and strong penalties and I haven’t seen that.”

Similarly, our Customs source said the federal government need to do more for the tide to be turned. “Part of the problem is that there is some duplication of effort and confusion between Nigeria Customs and Nigerian Environment Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) that was set up. Customs are the ones doing the arrests, but Customs are not doing the prosecution. They hand them over to NESREA, and if NESREA are doing successful arrests and prosecutions, great, but they are not doing a good job of publicizing that.”

He adds: “In other countries, sniffer dogs are used. These special dogs are trained to sniff out ivory on passengers or containers coming into the country or leaving the country. Also, our lawmakers lack of adequate knowledge on the negative effects of illegal wildlife trade on our country. They must know that it depletes the economy, have negative effects on the economic wellbeing of the citizenry and embarrasses us internationally.”

Without doubt, another problem is corruption stemming from poor welfare packages for Customs officers. “Officers are not motivated to do the work committed to them. There are officers with integrity, passionate and willing to do this job, particularly relating to the subject matter, but the reward system in place does not recognize their effort on the subject matter as deserving of recognition, motivation and commendation, which will encourage others.

“The authority only shower encomium on officers who generate revenue, promote those who intercept arms and would not do anything for officers who intercept wildlife products worth millions or billions of Naira,” our source added.

With 1kg of ivory on international market going for $2,100 (N760, 200), this year alone, Nigeria government has intercepted ivory worth (N337million). In the same vein, Pangolin scales worth N2.5billion were seized.

Globally, ivory trafficking takes the centre stage next month with stakeholders gathering in the United Kingdom to help eradicate illegal trafficking.  The conference will bring together global leaders from Nigeria, Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, and Cameroon.

According to UK government, illegal wildlife is worth up to £17 billion a year, more than the combined income of the Central Africa Republic (CAR), Liberia and Burundi, and Lagos is playing an important role, sadly.

Additional report from Nicholas Kalu, Calabar