Nation Online (Nigeria)

Yahoo Boys: Nigeria’s newest players in the illegal ivory trade

In this report, TAIWO ALIMI investigates how a new band of players – Yahoo Boys – use the cyberspace to market and sell illegal ivory in Nigeria

Mohammed (not his real name) has been into cyber fraud for six years, before adding ivory marketing and sales. He walks into the room without smiling. He has chosen the place and time of our rendezvous with the aid of a contact—an antique dealer in Jakande Ivory Market, Lekki—a high-brow community of Lagos, Nigeria. The place is a quiet eatery in a backstreet of Victoria Island, overlooking the five-star Eko Hotels and Suites.

Slim and athletic, Mohammed could pass for a university student, but upon closer scrutiny, his dark brown face with wrinkles shows a man accustomed to hustling.

He considers himself a cyber genius. “I used to con people on the internet,” Mohammed said. “I’m a marketer now selling ivory to rich Nigerians and foreigners. It is easy and lucrative.”

The 32-year old is not alone. He works as a middleman for sellers and buyers of refined ivory. According to him, the general decline in proceeds from 419 scams and growing police trouble have distanced the Yahoo boys from the internet fraud after which they were named and into the sophisticated and organized international ivory trade.

“I was introduced into the business by a colleague and many other ‘Yahoo boys’ are doing it,” Mohammed said. Interestingly, this new crop of ivory middlemen thinks they are legitimate. “The police don’t disturb us. We have a string of customers now that reach out to us easily whenever they want ivory products.”

These days the Yahoo boys’ hangouts are no longer cybercafés but five-star hotels in Lagos Island and Lekki, Lagos Bar Beach, and other places frequented by wealthy Asians and Europeans. Every day, they sniff out prospective buyers. Top on their wanted list are Asians. The boldest often directly approach them, offering ‘small price’ for any kind of ivory piece.

The Yahoo boys are well known at Jakande Ivory Market, which Andrew Dunn, Nigeria Country Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), described as “the largest domestic market for ivory in Africa.” He said they often bring their clients there to authenticate the products before buying.

“Many times we sneak ivory out to clients or bring them in when they insist on seeing and handling before buying,” said Mohammed. “We just bring them to the dealer and wait for our cut.” From time to time, they get tips from both sides, as impressed buyers often part with financial gifts for their services. “Dealers will add a little money on the good as our compensation.

Our cut is proportionate with volume of trade. I have made N1000 ($2.7) and up to N5000 ($14) in a single transaction,” Mohammed explained.

He said a happy buyer would be glad to part with N500 ($1.3) or N1000 ($ 2.7) for the link up with dealer.

According to Mohammed, on the average, the monthly take home of a go-between Yahoo boy is between N45, 000 ($125) and N60, 000 ($166).

Gloria Chi, an ivory seller confirmed Mohammed’s claim.

Out of their takings Mohammed and co, however, must part with a little sum occasionally to olori (meaning leader in local language). Olori is the underground grandmaster that controls illegal activities within a locality.

According to him, the payment called ‘protection’ is “ransom paid to olori for protection from police and other criminals,” and for them to work in his area of control.

The sum is not fixed but is delivered whenever olori calls.

Pressed for other payments to ivory dealers at home and abroad, he gave an emphatic NO. “We don’t work for them,” he said.

Although Mohammed insists that his days as a cyber criminal are over, he is still using the internet to market and sell ivory, an illegal act according to an agreement reached by member states to ban international trade in ivory at the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In early 1990, CITES added domestic trading with a caveat: ‘unless there is proof that your ivory was lawfully acquired prior to the date that the African elephant was listed in CITES Appendix I (January 18, 1990)’.

Booming online sales

The Yahoo boys have taken ivory trafficking to the next level by taking advantage of their expertise in cyberspace to put it online.

“We promote our products on the internet too. We advertise on popular online media and some social media. This is what everyone who has something to sell does,” Mohammed added.

Our investigation turned up valuable information to back up Mohammed’s claim. Jiji.ng, one of Nigeria’s fastest growing online market—which sells everything from baby stuff to clothes, electronics and cars—is awash, daily, with promos of ivory beads, trinkets and jewelry. For a little fee, sellers are allowed to post pictures, prices, and inviting descriptions of their goods online. The sellers’ contacts are also on display for prospective buyers.

For example, a seller by the name of Ayedun Mercy put on sale original ivory beads for ?100,000 ($273) on the portal. Seven other offers for ivory-related items were also on display that same day. The adverts encouraged interested buyers to make contact, and to validate the products before payment. The owners of jiji.ng boast of having 100,000 visitors daily.

Ronke Oyebade, Jiji.ng’s salesperson, said that adverts are automatically blocked after two reports on them. “We have prohibited items; weapons, military/police items, human organs, stolen properties and product prohibited by laws, among others. Ivory items are not under any of this category,” she said.

Also involved in the illicit online trades are vconnect.com—a popular business-oriented portal—and nairaland.com, one of the most used online portals with high traffic 24/7. One seller on nairaland.com says he has 11 elephant tusks for sale. Another, Nnamoekenna, is looking for buyers for ivory staffs belonging to his late father, an Igbo chief.

Lagos open market 

If Mohammed was careful and discreet at the restaurant, he became bold and loquacious on getting to our destination; Jakande Ivory market.

The marketplace, otherwise known as Bar Beach Market by the uninitiated, and going by the signage, is a sizable and colourful place. Though the road to the market is dirty and worn out, the market itself is clean and well kept. It has about 200 stalls in neat rows. Stalls with similar wares are in the same regions and you can pick out the grocery area on entering. Other stalls bearing stone handicrafts, traditional beads, wood masks, wood carvings, bracelets, paintings, exotic animal purses, bags and sandals, and African prints are close to the back, and the same goes for the ivory stalls.

There, the stalls are cleaner than the rest of the market, and the environment is inviting. Even the salespersons are young and cordial. They speak English eloquently and treat shoppers well.

Neatly lined up in transparent shelves, about 20 stalls display exclusive ivory products; from beads to pipes, trinkets to bangles, traditional pipes, combs, pendants, religious carvings and life-size ivory in different sizes. Some have been carved into different shapes; blowing pipes, animals

and religious symbols. Multiple images of Mary, the mother of Christ, adorn the shelves.

Prices differ. A small bangle sells for N30, 000 ($82) while bigger ones go for as high as N70, 000 ($193).  An ivory cigarette pipe goes for N40, 000($110) while necklaces cost between N100, 000 andN150, 000. ($273 and $414) For a small life-size ivory staff, the price tag is N150, 000($414) while longer ones can go for as high as N300, 000($828).

Ivory vendor, Chi, offered to supply fresh elephant tusk for a N300, 000 ($828) deposit. “With N500, 000($1,381) I can supply you fresh ivory within three days,” she said.

Another seller, Chinedu, said many Asian nationals and Europeans frequent the market. “Our products are Africanized. They are genuine and the best you can find anywhere in Africa. That is why most of our customers are foreigners,” he boasted.

Patronage is equally good. According to Chinedu, “in a week, my store makes between N1million and N1.5 million” ($2778 and $4167). Out of his stock, he said the ivory tusk, carried as staff of office by Igbo chiefs, bangles and necklaces are hot in demand. “The staff is sold in pairs and Asians and local chiefs buy them regularly. Society women also come to buy ivory bangles and necklaces.”

Chi put her monthly sale at N4million ($11,112) or more.

With more stalls overflowing with ivory products, it is safe to estimate that mega million ivory deals pass through this market thereby worsening elephant butchery in Africa.

Solomon Adefolu, programme coordinator of the Climate Change and Local Engagement Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) observed, “That is where Igbo chiefs go to buy their tusks, which is a symbol of authority in their locality. It is the same market that men and women with large appetites for ivory trinkets, beads and bangles go, as well as small and big-time ivory product sellers. Chinese of

ten buy to resell when they travel home. ”

From Island to Mainland

Through the Yahoo boys ‘energetic online marketing, ivory trading is no longer exclusive to Lagos Island. Ivory products now adorn hidden shelves in mainland markets and residences where transactions are done.  Mainland areas such as Ikeja, the Lagos State capital, Ojodu, Yaba, and Isolo are culprits.

This year alone, there have been several recorded seizures of ivory. According to the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), 218 pieces / 343kg of elephant tusks were seized on February 13, from a Chinese-occupied apartment in Ikeja, Lagos. The occupant was arrested.

In May, four elephant tusks were held in Tejuoso Market, Ikeja, while 329 sacks (8,492 kgs) of pangolin scales were apprehended from another Chinese national at his Ikeja home in March in Ikeja. Two days later, 78 sacks (1,771 kg) of pangolin scales were also apprehended from the same apartment.

There is no doubt that the growing population and concentration of Asians in Lagos is aiding big sales in Lagos. Granted, the Yahoo boys are boosting the ivory market internally, but Nigeria’s biggest threat to elephant killings and ivory trade remains in international trading.

“Even in the UK and US, that is an issue with websites and online trade,” said Dunn, who has been working in Africa since 1989. “It is much more difficult to control. But it is probably small amounts. The larger amount would be through containers.”

He suspects that the quantum of online trading is little when compared to the amount that goes through the borders and shores. “There is domestic trade going on but there is also a big international trade going through Nigeria,” Dunn added.

Another problem is Nigeria’s laws on ivory trade. “They are ambiguous,” he said. “Surely, it is clearly illegal to import or export ivory, but is it illegal to sell or buy ivory within Nigeria? I am not really sure. Ivory is being sold openly in Lagos; there is nobody that’s been arrested. It is a threat to Nigeria’s remaining elephants.”

According to the Constitution as amended in 1999, under the Endangered Species (control of international trade and traffic) Act prohibited animals are classed into two groups. Animals in the first group are ‘absolutely prohibited’ from hunting or capture of or international trade. For animals in the other group, hunting or capture or international trade may only be ‘conducted under license.’

It states that with a permit from a federal minister, international trade can be conducted. It does not mention local trading.

Interestingly, ‘immature elephants’ are in the first list, while mature elephants are in the second list. Meaning: it is absolutely legal to trade big tusks once you can produce a permit.

“There is an urgent need to repeal this law,” Adefolu said.

For offenders, the current law stipulates a mere N1000 ($2.7) fine for a first timer and six-month imprisonment for a second time offender.

A source in Customs revealed that no offender has been prosecuted. “There have been seizures and arrests of locals and Asians, but no prosecution. Our laws on wildlife are weak,” he said under condition of anonymity.

Where the federal government has failed, Bauchi State government in collaboration with WCS—the body managing conservation in Yankari Game Reserve—has upgraded local laws on wildlife to punish offenders severally.

“Arrested hunters and poachers face six months’ imprisonment with option of between N300, 000($828) and N500, 000($1,381) fines. Many times, we keep them in jail because they could not afford the fine,” said Geoffrey Nachamada, the landscape director of Yankari.

As for the Yahoo boys, they are new to the police, whose focus has been on internet fraud.

Dr Elizabeth Ehi-Ebewele, Head of Wildlife at Nigeria CITES, is also advocating for legislation that would properly protect wildlife in Nigeria. “We need legislations that are strong and encompassing to check the killing and smuggling of wildlife. They go to our forests. They collaborate with community people, and gain access to the bush. They kill any elephant, any mammal, including the young ones. To them what is important is money. They have no regard for the future. It is high time we took wildlife very seriously,” she said.

This story was produced by The Nation Newspapers written as part of the ‘Reporting the Online Trade in Illegal Wildlife’ programme. This is a joint project of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Global Initiative Against Organized Crime funded by the Government of Norway. More information at http://globalinitiative.net/initiatives/digital-dangers.The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.