A white-bellied pangolin which was rescued from local animal traffickers is seen at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) office…
A white-bellied pangolin which was rescued from local animal traffickers is seen at the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala, Uganda, on April 9, 2020.

ABUJA - Corruption has made Nigeria the biggest smuggler of ivory and pangolin scales from central and West Africa to Asia, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency. The London-based group says in the past five years, Nigeria has been implicated in global seizures equating to 4,400 elephants and hundreds of thousands of endangered pangolins.

Aaron Olamilekan, a Nigerian wildlife advocate, spoke as he held a dead pangolin he bought from a group of local hunters arriving from a hunt on the outskirts of Abuja.

"They tell me why most of them hunt. It's based on poverty; there's no good job for them, there's no government support for them. So, they have no choice than to go into the wild," Olamilekan said.

The hunters sell the animals in exchange for cash.

But Olamilekan sometimes intercepts them, negotiates and rescues endangered species.

Animals returned to wild

He runs a sanctuary where he says animals can be resuscitated and nurtured before they're released into the wild.

"The ecosystem is being tampered with because all these animals have a role to play in our environment, so killing them will cause a future disaster," Olamilekan said.

Illegal hunting for trade is the major reason that endangered species such as elephants and pangolins are in constant decline.

Since 2015, Nigeria has been the main exit point for pangolin scales and elephant ivory from the continent to many parts of Asia, where they are prized for decorative purposes or their alleged but unproven medicinal uses.

Smugglers take ivory, scales

A recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) shows more than 30 tons of ivory and 167 tons of pangolin scales have been smuggled through the country in five years.

The EIA blames corruption by Nigerian border or port officials for the illegal trade. Shruti Suresh is a senior wildlife campaigner at EIA.

"Corruption which exists within certain public sectors is helping organized crime to thrive and traffic ivory, pangolin, and several other species." Suresh said. "We need political will at the highest level of government to prioritize this issue."

Nigeria is a member of several international conventions protecting endangered wildlife, including the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).

Laws rarely enforced

Nigerian authorities continue to pledge their commitment toward protecting wildlife even though laws meant to safeguard endangered species are rarely enforced.

The EIA wants Nigerian authorities to take stricter measures against poachers and smugglers, noting that uncontrolled trade during this period of the coronavirus pandemic could be potentially dangerous.

For the moment, wildlife advocate Olamilekan will be saving as many endangered animals as possible.