John Samuel was swift in alighting from his pick-up truck at the entrance of the popular Oluwo Fish Market in the Epe area of Lagos.
He dashed into the market, holding down his t-shirt with one hand to cover his protuberant belly and grabbing a sack blackened by dirt. Visitors unfamiliar with the nature of business in the market would have thought the 46-year-old restaurateur in the Ajah area of the state was fleeing an impending disaster.
But considering the insatiable craving for bush meat among Nigerians and the rarity of such delicacy in local markets, Samuel’s burst of energy was understandable. He wasted no time haggling over the price for the carcass of two young duikers; a species of antelopes, killed in a neighbouring forest in Ogun State by a hunter and valued at N20,000 each.
On the table of one of the female traders were the carcasses of two grasscutters, one of them already decomposing; a porcupine, a young monitor lizard, a civet, and a small crocodile with its fore and hind limbs tied with twine around its back. She struggled to keep flies away from the dead animals but the two-winged insects could not resist the putrid smell.
One of the traders threw the dead civet toward Samuel, anticipating a quick bargain but he did not seem interested in the ‘bushmeat’ which appeared too burnt and unappealing.
He quickly tucked the dead antelopes in the sack and sat on one of the slaughter slabs in the market awaiting his next purchase. Some of the female traders laughed and teased him as they watched the drama unfolding, confirming that he was a familiar face in the market.
But a few minutes later, the restaurateur quickly dumped the sack at the back of his truck and zoomed off shortly after obliging our correspondent his name, thinking he was a law enforcement officer in mufti.
However, one of the traders, Ranti Owoyemi, who claimed to have traded in the market for over 20 years, said Samuel was trying to get the best deals at the earliest time possible due to the scarcity occasioned by the difficulty faced by hunters who struggled to hunt the largely nocturnal animals when there was a full moon.
She said, “We get the carcasses of different wild animals from hunters who come from Ijebu Ode, Ibadan, and Lagos, but lately only a few of them supply the bushmeat because any time the moon shines brightly, the animals hardly come out because they could be easily seen by hunters. So, the man (Samuel) knows that if he is not fast enough, other buyers will grab the best market (carcasses) at higher prices and leave the ones that are not attractive for the latecomers.
“In Yorubaland, native doctors demand the pangolin; they say it is used for the treatment of pregnant women. We used to sell some at between N3,000 and N5,000, depending on the size, before we were warned by the government to stop selling pangolins.’’
Nigeria’s endangered fauna
The consumption of wild animals as meat in Nigeria has increased over the years, leaving many of the country’s fauna, including monitor lizards, antelopes, crocodiles, porcupines, tortoises, and pythons, endangered or at risk of extinction. Daily, these animals are at the mercy of hunters who kill them for subsistence and commercial purposes.
A hunter in the Ile-Oluji area of Ondo State, Sunkanmi Dada, told our correspondent that he had been in the business of hunting wild animals all his life as he was born into a family of hunters.
“Yes, my children both at home and abroad are trained with the money I make from hunting. I have killed many wild animals. It is only the elephant that I have not killed. I use a gun to kill them. When we kill those animals, we eat some and sell some to the bushmeat sellers you see along the expressways. Depending on the size of the animal, a big antelope now is sold for between N25,000 and N30,000,” he said.
A survey by WildAid, an international organisation that works to reduce the global consumption of wildlife products and increase local conservation efforts, revealed that wildlife in Nigeria faces threats from poaching for body parts and meat. It stated that as of 2021, Nigeria recorded a decline in the population of elephants, crocodiles, gorillas, antelope, and chimpanzees, while some species, such as pangolins, were either endangered or on the brink of extinction, a situation that has constantly drawn the attention of conservation advocates in Nigeria.
“Nigeria has a problem,” the founder, Greenfingers Wildlife Conservation Initiative, Chinedu Mogbo, said of persistent endangering of wildlife.
Magbo lamented that chimpanzees, drills, red Colobus monkeys, and other primates were critically endangered, noting that there were only 50 African lions left in Nigeria. He further noted that giraffes went extinct in Nigeria in 2006 and the country no longer had rhinos.
“The African forest elephant is also on the critically endangered list. For the smaller species, there are the white-bellied pangolin, the African crowned crane, and others,” he added.
With a first-class degree in Biomedical Sciences at the De Montfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom; and a master’s in Public Health at the University of Warwick, Mogbo was headed for a successful medical career. But his passion for wildlife protection and the need to protect Nigeria’s endangered animals from poachers informed his career switch.
Twelve years ago, he founded the organisation, focusing on the rescue, protection, and rehabilitation of Nigeria’s endangered fauna at a wildlife sanctuary, their release into protected spaces, and wildlife education.
“I could see the problem Nigeria had when it came to wildlife. I felt that I needed to somehow contribute in my way to change the narrative for wildlife in Nigeria. That was basically what inspired the journey. We run a wildlife sanctuary where we cater to animals that have been rescued. It houses over 110 different wild animals,” he said.
Multimillion naira illicit wildlife business
More worrisome is the trafficking and sale of hides and other animal parts by poachers and their accomplices. Painting a global picture of the menace, a professor of Environmental Law and Policy, Olanrewaju Fagbohun (SAN), said poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking had reached unprecedented levels.
“Illegal wildlife trade is believed to be the world’s fourth most valuable illicit commerce after drugs, human trafficking, and the arms trade. In financial terms, some estimates put the worth of illicit wildlife and plant trade at between €8bn and €20bn annually, while some have placed the estimate at between $15bn and $20bn or $10bn and $23bn per year,” Fagbohun, a former Vice-Chancellor of the Lagos State University, said at the 16th Chief S. L. Edu Memorial Lecture, organised by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation in 2018.
Similarly, WildAid noted that in addition to bushmeat consumption, Nigeria had emerged as the primary transit hub in Africa for ivory and pangolin scales exported to Asian countries, adding that the country was linked to about half of all pangolin scale seizures globally between 2016 and 2019.
Indeed, the recurrence of seizures by the Nigerian government underscores how deep-rooted the problem is. In February 2020, the Nigeria Customs Service said it intercepted smuggled pangolin scales valued at N10.26bn along the Isheri axis of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. In August 2021, it intercepted a haul of pangolin scales and elephant tusks worth N22.3bn in Lagos.
The Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (retd.), said the 196 sacks of pangolin scales seized in August 2021 weighed 17,137.44 kilograms; the pangolin claws weighed 4.60kg while the elephant tusks weighed 870.44 kg.
Why poaching, illegal trade thrive
Findings by Saturday PUNCH showed that in addition to a low level of wildlife education and conservation, laws protecting wildlife in Nigeria are poorly enforced. In 2016, the Federal Government amended the Endangered Species (Control of International Trade and Traffic) (Amendment) Act to increase fines under the First Schedule from N1,000 to N500,000 or five years’ imprisonment, or both for offenders who hunt or trade in endangered species such as pangolins, sea turtles, civets, monkeys, and pythons.
“With regard to the Second Schedule, fines were increased to N300,000 ($770) or three years in prison or both. Airlines, shippers, or cargo handlers who freight illegal wildlife products now pay a fine of N2m ($5,128). However, the law is rarely enforced, as seen with many other wildlife laws, such as the National Environmental (Protection of Endangered Species in International Trade) Regulations 2011, which has a maximum fine of N5m ($13,137) and a three-year jail term for people involved in wildlife-related crimes,” the WildAid survey added.
Greed is another driving force, with hunters, poachers, and their collaborators capturing and killing endangered species for monetary gains.
“It is a major problem. It is corruption and greed because they (poachers) know the worth of these animals and their parts. There is another part of this wildlife trade that is happening that has not been exposed. This is an international pet trade where indigenous wildlife is taken and exported to other countries because they are sold for huge amounts of money. Nobody is talking about it. The pangolin and rhinos are part of Africa’s wildlife that is being decimated,” Mogbo said.
“Unfortunately, some of these things are not being done by locals; they are done by foreigners who come to Nigeria and use the locals to fuel the trade. The hunters are just part of the long chain. Some of the people mainly involved have a strong network where they can even pull the string of government officials.
“For example, if a seizure has been made, they can pull strings to have those materials returned to them even after they have been seized and publicly declared. But it (illegal wildlife) will actually trickle down to the hunters who will go in search of the animals and gather them,” he added.
The National Public Relations Officer of the NCS, Timi Bomadi, said illegal wildlife traders arrested by the Customs, made fruitless efforts to bribe officers to get the seized items released or get a soft landing.
He said, “It is something that we have not relented in fighting against and I think just last month, the CGC Strike Force in Lagos also had seizures of pangolin scales. We have been consistent in our fight against the illicit wildlife trade.
“We get a lot of cooperation from even international bodies. We are working with a few European governments, some wildlife conservationists, and even the locals. It’s a huge intelligence-gathering exercise. Most of the wildlife is not domiciled in Nigeria but they (traffickers) want to use Nigeria as a transit route to either Asia or Europe.
“We noticed that there are non-Nigerians, like a case that is being prosecuted in court. Foreign nationals are engaged in the trade. It is notorious because they have been tracked even by the international police. Eventually, we got them arrested and they are currently being prosecuted in our courts.”
Illegal wildlife trade now cyber-enabled
It was further gathered that while the government’s efforts to stamp out illegal wildlife trade in Nigeria appear to be yielding some results, the perpetrators are moving their activities online.
TRAFFIC, a leading non-governmental organisation working on wildlife trade in the context of both biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, said threatened African species were facing increasing danger from an unregulated and illegal cyber-enabled wildlife trade in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon.
“While these countries have policies in place for physical marketplaces, unregulated online market sellers are taking advantage of a lack of cyber-related legislation. Seventy-nine per cent of the observed online advertisements were found in Nigeria, which along with Gabon, also represented the highest number of live species for sale. Seventy per cent of all the products found for sale in this survey were live birds and monkeys, thought to be advertised for the exotic pet trade.
“The ongoing concern is that 90 per cent of the sellers were listing on platforms which instruct buyers to meet sellers to exchange and pay for goods in person, making it difficult for law enforcement to intercept packages or even prove the sale,” it said in a July 2022 report on cyber-enabled wildlife trade in Central African countries and Nigeria.
Corroborating this, Fagbohun said relevant agencies in countries such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, and Chile were properly resourced both in terms of manpower and requisite facilities, with technology playing a major role to monitor and detect illicit wildlife trade.
Impact on Nigeria’s environment
Decrying the impact of wildlife depletion occasioned by the illegal trade in Nigeria, Fagbohun explained that biosecurity risk was a major problem.
According to the World Health Organisation, 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases in the last decade have been traced to animals. Illegal wildlife can diminish species populations to the point of extinction as has been seen with some animals such as rhinoceros, lions, and others.
“This will ultimately lead to severe economic losses. Loss of biodiversity through illegal wildlife can also threaten ecosystem functions and the destruction of local communities. There is the threat of harm and violence to rangers, conservation officials, police officers, and members of the community assisting these officials. The significant amount of money involved further heightens the risk of corruption, strengthens criminal networks, and fuels social instability,” Fagbohun stated.
Countries make fortune from wildlife tourism
Reports showed that while wildlife struggles for survival in Nigeria, some countries are taking advantage of their fauna to boost their economy and provide jobs through tourism.
In 2018 alone, tourism contributed $8bn to the South African economy, accounting for 2.8 per cent of its GDP. It also created 716,000 jobs, about 4.6 per cent of the country’s total employment, according to Investec, an anglo-South African international banking and wealth management group.
Brazil made $103.5bn from tourism and travel in 2021, contributing 6.4 per cent to its GDP, while Nigeria earned $16m from the sector, accounting for 3.6 per cent of the nation’s GDP, the World Travel and Tourism Council said in its 2021 economic impact report.
“In the absence of reliable data, it is difficult to estimate how much Nigeria is losing to this illegal trade. Against the background of the pieces of evidence scattered all over, Nigeria is losing billions of dollars on a yearly basis,” Fagbohun added.
Conservationists canvass moderate consumption
A professor of Wildlife Conservation at the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, Abia State, Augustine Ezealor, while blaming the high demand, consumption, and decline of Nigeria’s endangered species on poverty, said wildlife consumption must be planned to accommodate their reproduction and continuous existence.
He said, “It is more of a problem of poverty than orientation. Telling some people not to consume bushmeat is like telling them not to consume meat at all. We destroy wildlife at our peril. Wildlife doesn’t breathe air differently from the one we breathe, so if we soil their environment, we are indirectly soiling our environment. We must learn to coexist with wildlife.
“I am not saying people should not eat them but it must be a planned harvest. You go in, take a few and allow others to multiply and let the species exist. But here (in Nigeria), we kill the ‘father’, ‘mother’, and offspring of wild animals. I saw a young man who had harvested giant African rats; he smoked them out of their hole and killed the entire family.”
Also, a professor of Wildlife Ecology, Nutrition, Ecotourism, and Hospitality at the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Ondo State, Adebisi Adeyemo, noted that the government must be intentional about protecting wildlife and promoting tourism.
“Kenya, for instance, depends on wildlife tourism. So, if we enhance wildlife tourism in Nigeria, more people will come from different countries to see our animals and it will bring in a lot of revenue. Ecotourism can bring in millions of naira and become a major source of revenue,” Adeyemo said.
Health implications for wildlife consumers
At the onset of the Ebola crisis in 2014 and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, several restrictions introduced by federal and state governments reduced the sale and consumption of bushmeat among Nigerians. But lovers and traders of the commodity soon returned to their pastime.
However, health experts warned that the consumption of wild animals remained a health risk. For instance, the monitor lizard is said to be a possible carrier of disease-causing bacteria that can result in food poisoning.
But is it safe for humans to eat?
“No, it is not completely safe to consume lizards as food. Lizards may carry various disease-causing bacteria, including Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus. These bacteria can cause a food-borne illness or food poisoning,” said Dr Oladipo Kolawole, a virologist and Head of the Microbiology Department at Adeleke University, Ede, Osun State.
“There are over 150 zoonotic diseases worldwide, which are transmitted to humans by both wild and domestic animal populations, 13 of which are responsible for 2.2 million deaths per year,” Kolawole added.
According to him, some zoonotic diseases such as rabies, which are infections spread between people and animals, caused by germs, such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi, could be severe and life-threatening, thus posing a health risk for bushmeat consumers.
“Yes, they (consumers) are at a high risk of contracting zoonotic diseases, bushmeat hunting, butchering, and consumption is widely considered to be the primary risk factor for human-wildlife contact and zoonotic viral transmission. Rodents, rats, monkeys, and small antelope (duikers and chevrotains) are the most commonly cited species in cases of zoonosis transmission between animals and humans.
“The symptoms depend on the type of the animals that were consumed and the pathogen present. This will vary according to the pathogenesis of the involved pathogen and the host of concern. Some of the signs and symptoms are diarrhoea (which can be severe), abdominal cramps, poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, pain, fever, body aches, headache, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes among others,” Kolawole, who is also an international fellow of Indian Council of Medical Research- African Union/STRC, added.
FG keeps mum
Our correspondent made repeated efforts to find out what the Federal Ministry of Environment is doing to combat illegal wildlife trade, strengthen existing laws to deter potential offenders, promote wildlife conservation and make Nigeria’s fauna more attractive to local and international tourists. But the efforts were unsuccessful.
In a response to an enquiry by our correspondent, an official in the ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “I am having a challenge with the department (in charge); you know this civil service thing, they cannot release information. There is a desk officer in charge of wildlife and they have all the information. They are making it so difficult.”
By Alexander Okere