Feasting on the forbidden: Tales of unending wildlife, environmental crimes
Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals and are already facing extinction, but trading of the wildlife, including parts of elephants among others, still goes on freely and significantly unchecked in Nigeria.
Forest reserves are also rapidly in danger against the backdrop of rising population, economic downturn, poverty, growing insecurity, and child labour. KINGSLEY JEREMIAH writes.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species defines wildlife crime as the taking, trading (supplying, selling or trafficking), importing, exporting, processing, possessing, obtaining, and consumption of wild flora and fauna, including timber and other forest products, in contravention of national or international laws.
At about midday of August 17 this year, precisely 11:52, traders at the Bode Market in Ibadan, Oyo State were selling a live Pangolin for N7,900 ($18.19), while its scale was priced according to its quantity.
Pangolins, the most trafficked mammals are already facing extinction, but Alade Sedikat, whom The Guardian approached in the guise of purchasing some of the beasts knows her way around as far as supplying the wildlife is concerned.
Hardly had the inquiry been made than Sekidat started reaching out to those that matter in her closely-knit network of contacts/associates on the availability of a life pangolin.
In minutes, she also dispatched a lad (of between 12 to 14) to get the life Pangolin, which was initially taken away from her shop for inspection, by another associate.
“You can only get one and I must say you are lucky. Sometimes you won’t even get any in a week,” providing an insight into how difficult it is becoming to get a life Pangolin, Sedika, who appeared to be in her 60s said in the Yoruba language while pulling out a sack containing Pangolin scales and parts of other wildlife.
Her makeshift shop, which houses a series of other fresh and dried animal parts, roots, calabashes, clay pots, and chopped wood among others, borders the expressway which links Bode to the Challenge area of Ibadan.
Most of her colleagues, in this trade, display in their shops, different body parts of wildlife, including hides and skin openly awaiting buyers.
In the South West, this kind of trade is referred to as “Leku Leja,” or “Elewe-omo.” Leku Leja traders deal in all sorts of wildlife (whole/parts) and herbs (mostly from the forest), which are used by traditionalists, or herbalists. Consequently, these traders have strong ties with poachers, hunters, and farmers.
From siting their businesses close to palaces of traditional rulers to sundry places, these traders have graduated into e-trading and online consultations. Thanks to the growing patronage from wildlife traffickers, and the demand from traditionalists.
Seen by many, on the surface as petty trade, some of those involved in the trade have made fortunes from it to the point of building plazas, like the Munirat Leku Leja Shopping Complex, which is located around Old Ife Road in the North East part of Ibadan.
Like Sedikat, Ibidun Mudasiru who does business at the Oja ‘gbo Market, in Ogbomosho, displays fresh and dried wildlife parts, including elephant tusks, which price is pegged at N150, 000 ($345).
Other “prized” items, which she has in stock include hides and skin of leopard, lion, and side-striped jackal. She also has in stock tortoises, chameleons, assorted lizards, herbs, clay pots, and others.
Seated on a wooden stool directly adjacent to the Alafin Palace with one of her hands resting on her stool.
Fair-skinned with her gold-plaited teeth, Mudasiru cuts the image of successful Leku-Leja traders. As she invited The Guardian for patronage, and a discussion ensued over the purchase of an elephant tusk, the middle-aged woman dashed into her shop and shortly emerged with a bag containing the tusk. The price she said goes for N200, 000 (about $460).
Efforts to beat down the price were not successful, as she instead offered a smaller one for a slightly lower fee.
While the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) is spotlighting Nigeria on the global scene as a country where wildlife such as Pangolins, elephants, and other endangered species are traded both domestically and internationally, the appetite for bush meat by locals, and weak regulations and enforcement of related laws have continued to create a booming market for traders.
Abas Folasho, whose shop is behind the Al-Madeenah Central Mosque in the Olukoko area of Ogbomoso is one such trader. Most of the wildlife parts in his shop, which he said are for consumption, include reptiles such as snakes, alligators, rabbits, and antelopes.
Folasho, a married father of four has been in the business for about 10 years and provides for his family from it.
Having grown up in the Ikoyi area of Oyo State among hunters, he later settled for the wildlife trade, which he found more profitable when compared to farming, and hunting.
“This is what I do to feed my family,” Folasho said, adding, “even if I am to stop this, there is no job anywhere and I need to pay bills.”
If Mudasiru and Sedikat operated their kind of businesses in developed climes, including the United Kingdom, they would be jailed for at least three months and would pay a fine of £2,500. But in Nigeria, they earn a living from environmental crimes, as well as aiding the activities of poachers.
Also, while they help themselves with proceeds from the trade, their actions remain detrimental to wildlife conservation and the protection of biodiversity, which are not only crucial to environmental sustainability but also interlinked to the country’s socioeconomic development.
Moreso, the increasing breakdown of the natural wall between humanity and wildlife has contributed significantly to the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as bird flu, including Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), recorded over 615 million cases, that led to more than 6.5 million deaths, including billions of United States dollars in socio-economic losses as of September 2022.
Data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that while these wildlife and environmental crimes are reducing globally, it is getting worse in Nigeria.
For instance, there has been a decline in trafficking in ivory since 2011, but in January 2021, there was a seizure at the Apapa Port, by the Nigeria Customs Services (NCS), of a 20-feet container containing parts of various endangered species.
In the container were 2,772 pieces of elephant tusks of different shapes weighing about 4,752kg; 162 sacks of pangolin scales weighing 5,329kg; 5kg of rhino horns, dried and fresh wildlife bones; 103 kg of skulls suspected to be of lions and other wild cats, and 76 pieces of timber (semi-processed and processed).
Sadly, arrests and convictions across the value chain of wildlife and environmental crimes are rare amidst a lack of awareness and understanding of the crimes.
This much was confirmed by the immediate past Minister of State for Environment, Sharon Ikeazor, who told the media: “Conviction level is very low because we have to improve the capacity of our judiciary and our enforcement in understanding wildlife and environmental crimes in general. What are the endangered species? And what are the threatened species that should not be traded? It’s a lot of work that we have to do.”
Over time, the 394 km2 Akure-Ofosu Forest in Ondo State, which has remained of great importance for the conservation of chimpanzees in the country, is now a dreaded location given the level of insecurity in the country and reports that insurgents and kidnappers are using the forest as a hideout.
In 2007, the forest was reported to have 33 nests at four locations. Already, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the chimpanzees in the forest as endangered. It was this concern that informed the foray into the forest.
With the aid of a forest guide, The Guardian’s trip into the forest began through Idanre flank. The ride on the motorcycle ended up taking several hours as the journey into the bowels of the forest unfolded.
Skirting around the Idanre Hill, a popular tourist site in the state, an iron barricade suddenly emerged, not too far into the forest, with four men standing guard to collect about N200 ($0.46) before access is granted. Such roadblocks exist across pathways leading into the forest.
Funds accruing from this source, are said to be used to amend the numerous failed portions of the road, which is nothing to write home about.
However, despite the rough terrain, the sheer number of motorcycles heading in and out of the forest is simply shocking. Indeed, over 90 per cent of the motorcyclists coming from the forest are laden with bags of cocoa.
Besides motorcycles, also plying these pathways are tractors and rickety lorries with a wooden carriages. The vehicles are used to haul logs of wood and planks by those pillaging the forest reserves through a high rate of deforestation.
In the Ofosu section of the forest, which was arrived at after an hour on a motorcycle, a series of economic activities take place simultaneously in the many communities in the forest regarded as camps, and headed by camp heads.
Some of the encroachers operating in the forest have spent over 30 years milking it and collecting illegal taxes with the backing of traditional rulers, who see the forest as an extension of their kingdoms.
There are clear indications that the state government knows the activities of these encroachers. Apart from a government-funded hospital, a signpost showed a project for the construction of eight box culverts and the construction of a 15-kilometre access road. Regarding the road, which was to cost N9.9m, Ondo State Community and Social Development Agency were to contribute N8.9m, while the communities were to contribute N990, 664.50.
Rising population, unemployment, and the harsh economic situation in the country have led to an increase in the number of members of these communities, with young people between the ages of 10 and 18, who should ordinarily be in a school serving as labourers within the forest.
Among the encroachers and loggers are some that carry identity cards approved by the Ondo State Ministry of Agriculture, and they pay land use rent once in two years. The cost depends on the scale of activities being carried out in the forest.
As the forest reserve gets depleted owing to bush burning, felling of trees, and clearing of land for cocoa and other crops cultivation, 17-year-old John, who finished his secondary education just before the outbreak of COVID-19, is one of those taking an active part in decimating the forest on behalf of his boss.
John, who was supposed to further his education ended up in the Akure-Ofosu forest, where he earns N125, 000 ($287) yearly clearing cocoa farmland.
There are many like John, who are recruited by individuals, or contractors to do hard labour since communities across the forest rely on manual agriculture.
The so-called contractors came into the forest like John but established themselves over the years, and then graduated to recruiting others that they pay stipends yearly. The yearly payment ranges from N125, 000 ($287)
to N150, 000 ($345).
These contractors, negotiate with farmers and loggers, get awarded contracts and bring in the boys to complete the tasks. Those who own tractors and lorries also operate similarly.
Journeying through Ayefemi, Igbepo, Owena, Fayomi, Bolorunduro, and other communities, the level of misery experienced by workers in the forest, paints a grim picture of what the dramatis personae are going through.
John, the last child in a family of six, was brought in from Akwa Ibom State after his parents could not finance his education.
“I am doing this so that I can finance my education. I will be paid N125, 000 ($287) in a year, as I work Mondays to Saturdays. Since I don’t have to work for my master on Sunday, I usually take extra labour. In doing that, I make more money,” he said.
Earlier that week, John had killed and eaten a pangolin, and the scales still littered the surrounding grounds. For him, whatever wildlife comes his way is for food because living in the forest, wildlife constitutes his main source of protein, just as he does not know all the talks about endangered wildlife.
Abioye Afiz, 21, is from Idanre, one of the closest communities to the forest. His boss owns three tractors, which help loggers pull their planks to pick up stations for a fee.
From age 14, he has been assisting his father in the forest. It was in the process that he developed an interest in the job.
Speaking in Yoruba, Afiz said: “Kosi igi mo,” (the trees have been depleted). Loggers only cut down trees, but no one is interested in a replacement.”
Afiz who recalled the days when the population of those depleting forest resources was low, said: “Sadly, as population increases and the economy gets tougher, people in these communities are turning to the forest. Taskforce teams come from Ondo once in a while to arrest people and release them after some days,” Afiz stated.
He added: “This is what a lot of us do to survive; there are no jobs out there. We have some graduates in Idanre, who is in the forest here because it is better than carrying a gun.”
Asaju Ogungbade, one of the encroachers in the forest see things differently as he told The Guardian that the forest was reserved for them, by their forefathers who foresaw the challenges ahead due to the population explosion.
After spending years investing in the cocoa plantation in the forest, Ogungbade now pays land use charges once in two years to the Ondo State government for encroaching. Not long ago, the state government formally recognised him as one of those that are exploiting the forest and handed him an identity card after he paid the sum of N10, 000 ($22.98). While this happens, he has consistently increased his cocoa yield yearly.
Interestingly, Ogungbade, a former storekeeper for cocoa farmers, who have been training most of his siblings in schools from the proceeds of his trade, said that he is not worried about the rapid depletion of the forest. Instead, he is calling on the government to make the forest more conducive for farmers, because “we pay our taxes every time, but can’t even have motorable roads.”
Apart from cocoa, Ogungbade engages in planting other crops and tubers. Consequently, he relies on chemicals and pesticides, which end up endangering wildlife, as well as harming the soil, in addition to posing a serious risk to human health.
This much is confirmed by a Washington-based non-profit organisation, Beyond Pesticides, which linked the practice by the likes of Ogungbade to cancer, endocrine disruption, kidney and liver damage, neurotoxicity, and development changes in a wide range of species.
On its part, the National Library of Medicine noted that while there are an estimated 10 million incidences and six million cancer-related deaths yearly, Nigeria has an estimated 72,000 cancer-related deaths yearly, and 102,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.
Also, World Life Expectancy puts the rate of liver disease in Nigeria at 41.99 per cent as against the global average of 21 per cent.
Mogbo, a lecturer at Kogi State University, Anyigba, is a lover of bush meat. At a local pup where he enjoyed bottles of alcoholic beverage with his friends, they made do with plates of alligator meat pepper soup. Each plate went for N2,500 ($5.7).
Unfortunately, while veterinary doctors across abattoirs examine livestock that is eventually sent into markets, the same cannot be said of the bush meat, which Mogbo and his friends usually binge on. Indeed, such wildlife, which could have been infected with Ogungbade’s pesticides and herbicides ultimately find their way into pots when hunted.
Many stakeholders are deeply worried that with the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as monkeypox, Ebola, and COVID-19, and the attendant loss of lives, the Nigerian government is still neither here nor there as far as drawing lessons are concerned.
As part of their curriculum, learners in their first year in junior secondary schools in the country are made to understand that Ogungbade’s chemical weeding leads to the destruction of beneficial organisms; soil pollution as well as groundwater contamination among others.
Ogungbade is unaware of the collateral effect that all these have on pasture, and how they compromise the health of the wildlife that feed on them, neither is he aware that setting fire to kill trees that obstruct his cocoa, or crop is worsening deforestation.
While there is a semblance of peace in Ofosu forest, contrary to what obtains in the larger society, Ogungbade told The Guardian that encroachers just mind their businesses, stressing that only division among camp heads, the Idanre community, and the state government is what creates room for insecurity.
However, most stakeholders are worried that insecurity, especially activities of bandits, insurgents, and herdsmen negatively affects wildlife.
The Special Adviser on Agriculture and Agribusiness to Ondo State Governor, Akin Olotu, is aware of the issues affecting the forest but appears helpless even as the state has now worsened the situation by offering 15, 000 hectares of the over 52, 000 hectares of the forest for agricultural schemes, in partnership with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
The United Nations Population Fund had said that Nigeria’s population, which is increasing by 3.2 per cent yearly may hit 400 million by 2050. As the population grows, land use challenges compounded by a wobbling economic situation and rising poverty, have jointly forced the government to prioritise economic benefits above environmental concerns.
Most state governments and indeed the Federal Government do not see concerns over deforestation and afforestation as an issue to prioritise.
It was in April this year that the country launched its first-ever National Strategy to Combat Wildlife and Forest Crime. With the plan, the government is planning to enhance institutional capacity, strengthen legal framework, increase collaboration, honour commitment, remove crime enablers, raise awareness on wildlife crimes, and create an alternative livelihood.
The Minister of Environment, Mohammed Abdullahi, had said that the government plans to tackle wildlife and environmental crimes through awareness creation and advocacy campaigns, which would be expanded to include the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), and airline operators.
He explained that giant dedicated electronic billboards would be erected at strategic locations at airports, with clear and instructive messages to promote interest in the protection and conservation of wildlife and forest resources.
Several months after the pronouncement was made, nothing has been done in this direction as confirmed by checks across major airports in the country, including Lagos and Abuja.
“In most cases, the illicit trade is demand-driven. To that extent, efforts are equally being made to explore diplomatic channels by engaging the embassies of key European and Asian countries noted as destinations for the trafficked products to assuage the demand pressure. The discussion has also commenced towards the signing of an MoU with the Vietnamese government being a major stakeholder in fighting wildlife and forest crime,” Abdullahi said.
In Ondo State like many other states, little attention was paid to forests until clashes between herdsmen and farmers became worrisome. It was then that the stated move to identify the encroachers.
Olutu, the Ondo State governor’s aide blamed the present condition of the forest on previous administrations who allowed the encroachers to thrive, adding that the present administration has informed encroachers that they would be in the forest temporarily.
According to him, about 6,000 hectares of the Ofosu forest have been taken over by encroachers, most of whom are non-indigenous to the state. There is a condition that they are reminded that they are tenants every year, that the government could move them out when the need arises, and that they are not permitted to sell an inch of the forest. About 80 per cent of the people are not from the state,” Olutu said.
But Olutu, who has been actively campaigning for afforestation and biodiversity given the dangers of climate change and the wide-ranging impact of deforestation, added that the government is working towards replanting trees and prioritising mother earth, but his justification clashes with the growing economic tension in the country.
The 1978 Land Use Act bestows ownership of land in the state. Section one of the Act specifically states that state governors held land in trust for Nigerians.
These developments made the states and local governments critical players in the fight against wildlife and environmental crimes. Sadly, most of the states and local councils cannot either address wildlife and other environmental crimes, or state actors have become enablers by resorting to helping themselves.
In places like Oyo and Ondo, traditional rulers and other state actors are beneficiaries of these crimes.
The Chief Press Secretary to the Oyo State Governor, Taiwo Adisa, did not respond to The Guardian on the issue after initially asking for clarification on wildlife trade in the state.
The National President of the Nigerian Environmental Society, Dr. Dorothy Bassey, believes that environmental and wildlife crimes are on the increase in the country because of the lack of proper management.
The lack of a database is also of primary concern for Bassey, who stressed that monitoring and enforcement levels remained worrisome.
She, therefore, called for community ownership since poachers would be reluctant to face an entire community, adding that an approach that involves the people and non-governmental agencies to fill in loopholes would help.
“These criminals take advantage of the ignorance of the people who should be massively involved in wildlife protection,” Bassey said, stressing that there should be sustained awareness campaigns, while businesses are encouraged to support wildlife conservation as is the case abroad.
An environmental biologist and Dean of Life Sciences, at the Federal University of Technology Minna, Prof. Francis Arimoro, described the depletion of wildlife in Nigeria as “massively alarming.”
According to her, “lions are less than 50, and elephants less than 300. Giraffes and leopards are no longer found in Nigeria. The current initiative by the CBN will further exacerbate the current situation. We are losing our forest as a result of logging, fires, etc. I am very worried about this as a foremost biodiversity and conservation expert in Nigeria.” Arimoro said.
He recommended that policies and laws to check the situation be put in place urgently; proper training and public enlightenment exercises targeting both decision-makers and the public; conservation programmes to be initiated in schools from primary to tertiary institutions, research for effective and doable management plans, and the need for the creation of more zoos and protected forest reserves with community participation.
On the way forward, experts insist that state governments, local councils, and traditional rulers are very critical to ending wildlife and environmental crimes in the country.
Consequently, they want the national approach to be replicated at the grassroots level, while massive awareness creation exercise is very vital both in the short and long terms, which may include compulsory courses at elementary schools up to tertiary schools.
While judiciary and law enforcement officials must have their capacity on wildlife and environmental crimes built, a registry for offenders, they insist could reduce similar crimes.
The diplomat community, they added, must also live up to expectations and be sincere in helping the country to fight wildlife and environmental crimes.
There is also a need for data acquisition as government agencies admit to a lack of data that shows the level of deforestation and wildlife crimes.
This report was supported by Green Growth Africa Sustainability Network (Green Growth Africa)