Nigerian government on Monday publicly destroyed a substantial quantity of seized wildlife products including pangolin scales alongside leopard, python and crocodile skins for the first time in the nation’s history.
This is perhaps a message that the government was ready to combat wildlife trafficking and protect the nation’s biodiversity.
The incineration event took place in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, with representatives from various government agencies, local and international environmental NGOs, and wildlife conservation experts in attendance.
The incineration was done by the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) in collaboration with the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) Foundation, with support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at an occasion where they methodically reduced a total of 3914.08 kilogrammes (nearly 4 tonnes) of seized pangolin scales and 110 kilogrammes of skins from protected species including leopard, python and crocodile to ashes.
Speaking at the event, the Minister of State for Environment. Dr. Iziaq Salako said: “We gather here today to bear witness to a critical moment in the battle to protect our planet’s precious biodiversity. These seized items represent the past we leave behind, but the destruction signifies the future we are determined to build for our planet. The destruction of these seized items is a powerful statement of our resolve to protect our environment, conserve our wildlife, and combat the illegal trade that drives species to the brink of extinction.”
On his part, the Director General/ Chief Executive Officer of NESREA, Professor Aliyu Jauro said: “The illegal wildlife trade is a serious threat to our natural heritage and global biodiversity. Nigeria is committed to playing its part in addressing this crisis. By destroying these pangolin scales alongside leopard, python and crocodile skins, we send a strong message that illegal wildlife trafficking will not be tolerated, and we will take every measure necessary to protect our unique ecosystems and endangered species.”
Pangolins are among the most trafficked mammals in the world, partly because their scales are in great demand for use in traditional medicine in Asia, where their meat is also considered a delicacy. As pangolin populations in Asia have declined, shipments from Africa have greatly increased to meet soaring demand.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I lists all eight species of pangolins (four in Asia and four in Africa), giving them the highest level of legal protection available. However, the unlawful trade in pangolin parts has brought these scaly anteaters dangerously close to extinction. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species presently lists two of the four pangolin species found in Africa as Endangered, which indicates that they are at extremely high risk of going extinct in the wild.
Nigeria has emerged as a source and major transit hub for the trafficking of pangolin scales to Asia. According to the Wildlife Justice Commission, 55 percent of pangolin scale seizures worldwide between 2016 and 2019 were linked to Nigeria. By extension, a team of conservationists led by the University of Cambridge recently examined pangolin product seizures connected to Nigeria and discovered that shipments of pangolin products that were seized and reported by law enforcement officials between 2010 and September 2021 totaled 190, 407 kg, which came from at least 800,000 to as many as a million dead pangolins.
Director of Stockpile Management at the EPI Foundation, Ruth Musgrave said:
“Nigeria’s decision to incinerate seized pangolin scales and other skins is a shining example of a nation taking proactive measures to protect its natural heritage and contribute to the global fight against wildlife crime.”
Nigerian authorities recognize the urgency of protecting this species and have taken significant steps to address the trafficking of pangolins through its borders, including
adopting its first National Strategy to Combat Wildlife and Forest Crime. Subsequently, the government has also established the Wildlife Law Enforcement Task Force (WLETF) of which NESREA is the operational lead, working closely with the Federal Ministry of Environment to address wildlife crime in the country.
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of seizures of pangolin scales and prosecution of offenders in Nigeria. The Nigeria Customs Service said that it seized 1,613 tonnes of pangolin scales in 2022 alone and detained 14 people. In May 2023, two individuals were given a four-year prison sentence for conspiring to possess 839.4 kg of pangolin scales and 145 kg of elephant tusks illegally and a clearing agent was sentenced to a six-month prison term in June for illegally possessing a container full of pangolin scales, elephant ivory, tusks, and bones.
In July, a Federal High Court in Lagos sentenced four foreigners to six years in prison for wildlife trafficking.
The Nigerian government, also through NESREA, uses the Endangered Species (Control of International Trade and Traffic) Act 2016 and the National Environmental (Protection of Endangered Species in International Trade) Regulations 2011 to tackle wildlife crime.
Founder and CEO of Wild Africa Fund, Peter Knights OBE, has this to say on the war on wildlife trafficking in the country,
“Credit to Nigeria for taking this step towards upping its game by publicly destroying these seized products. Now Nigeria urgently needs to update its outdated wildlife laws by introducing and passing the new wildlife legislation introduced last session, but delayed due to the elections. This would be the next step in a comprehensive response to reduce wildlife crime.”
Environmental organisations and wildlife advocates have praised Nigeria’s actions, hailing them as a positive step toward curbing the illegal wildlife trade. They have called for continued cooperation between government agencies, civil society, and international partners to strengthen enforcement efforts and raise awareness about the importance of preserving biodiversity.
Michael Olugbode in Abuja