Corruption has helped make West and Central Africa the epicentre for ivory and pangolin trafficking to Asia

Dec 10, 2020 | Reports

By Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)

On the eve of UN International Anti-Corruption Day (09 December), our latest report finds West and Central Africa have emerged as major sourcing and export hubs for the illegal trafficking of elephant ivory and pangolin scales to Asia.

Out of Africa: How West and Central Africa have become the epicentre of ivory and pangolin scale trafficking to Asia details how endemic corruption, weak or absent rule of law, low levels of development and hotspots of armed conflict have left the region wide open to exploitation by well-organised transnational criminal gangs.

Since 2015, Nigeria has emerged as the world’s primary exit point for ivory and pangolin scales trafficked from Africa to Asia. During the past five years, it has been implicated in global seizures of more than 30 tonnes of ivory and 167 tonnes of pangolin scales – the equivalent of at least 4,400 elephants and many hundreds of thousands of pangolins.

At a time when the world is grappling with the crippling impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, such high-volume trade in wildlife poses a serious risk for the spread of zoonotic diseases – those arising from animals – such as COVID-19.

Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and Nigeria are affected by some of the highest levels of organised crime on the African continent; all three have well-established criminal networks involved in trafficking wildlife, humans, drugs, minerals, timber and weapons.

Shruti Suresh, EIA Senior Wildlife Campaigner, said: “Given the challenges of crime and corruption in several parts of West and Central Africa, we need to act now before elephants, pangolins and other wildlife disappear forever from this part of the world.

“As a matter of urgency, governments in the region need to address corruption, the lack of political will to tackle wildlife crime, poor law enforcement – particularly at porous borders and entry/exit ports – as well as the role of foreign nationals involved in wildlife crime operating in this region.”

Key transportation companies identified as carriers for wildlife contraband include Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, and Pacific International Lines; airlines include Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airlines and Emirates Airlines, making it clear that strong collaboration between public and private sectors is essential to turn the tide against wildlife crime.

A seizure of 8,300kg pangolins scales and 2,100kg ivory from Nigeria (c) Hong Kong Customs

As well as documenting the huge volumes of ivory and pangolin scales smuggled from Africa to Asia, Out of Africa identifies Nigeria as a country of significant concern and lays bare the complex structure of wildlife trafficking and the roles played by rogue clearing agents, freight forwarders and other key players who enable industrial scale trafficking of ivory and pangolin scales from Africa.

Poachers and suppliers in primary source countries – including Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, DR Congo, Republic of Congo, Gabon and Liberia – secure ivory and pangolin scales before transport agents arrange for shipment to Nigeria.

Once in Nigeria, traders work closely with shipping agents to clear shipments for export through major hubs, including Apapa seaport and Lagos airport, often choosing to use trans-shipment locations such as Malaysia and Singapore to ‘break the route ‘and circumvent detection.

Repacking and switching Bills of Lading may take place through clearing agents during transit before onward transportation to Vietnam and China via air, sea or land routes.

Fraudulent shipping paperwork is used to conceal what is actually being transported; pangolin scales and ivory have been exported under the guise of frozen beef, auto parts, seeds, cashew nuts and ginger, while ivory has been smuggled within shipments of wood and even concealed inside hollowed-out timber.

All along the trafficking routes, corrupt officials at air- and seaports play a key role, taking bribes to turn a blind eye and ensure the smooth passage of contraband across borders.

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