PCWGN calls for collaborative efforts to combat wildlife trade, prevent another zoonotic disease

…as Nigeria accounts for the largest amount of illegal pangolin trade in Africa

The Pangolin Conservation Working Group Nigeria (PCWGN) has called for collaborative efforts in combating illegal wildlife trade in the country while preventing another zoonotic disease outbreak.

Olajumoke Morenikeji, chair, PCWGN in a chat with BusinessDay on wildlife trade in a COVID-19-altered world, said that several diseases have emanated from wildlife and as long as humans continue to eat, deal, trade and take wildlife away from its habitat, there will always be disease outbreaks.

There has been a clamour for the World Health Organization (WHO) to take measures to prevent new diseases emerging from wild animals by banning its sale.

This is because of the evidence that SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in a wild animal, probably a species of bat before jumping to an intermediate host, possibly a pangolin and then infects humans.

Morenikeji, a professor, noted that the problem for Nigeria is hydra-headed. She stated that even during this COVID-19 period, wildlife wet markets in Nigeria are thriving, selling endangered species with pangolin inclusive and topmost on the high price list.

Similarly, she says roadside bush-meat markets are on-going, offenders who violate the Endangered Species Act are not punished, borders are porous with huge shipments of pangolin scales leaving the shores of Nigeria, thus making the country a transit country for illegal trafficking.

She stated that pangolin scales seized by law enforcement agencies are stacked and stored.

“They are stored for what?” she asked. There is a need for a large scale war against wildlife trafficking in Nigeria, she said

Morenikeji said to prevent another pandemic due to zoonotic diseases, commercial wildlife trade must be addressed.

“The government could consider restricting the number of wildlife species allowed to be sold and consumed or increase regulations around the trade of certain species that pose the highest risk,” she said.

“The government should also support hunters to have alternative means of livelihoods.

“We have to take it at different levels. Our cultural institutions can also contribute to this by educating their communities on the importance of wildlife species in the ecosystem and on our health,” she further said.

“There is a need for our collaborative efforts to tackle this illegal trade if we are to prevent another zoonotic disease,” Morenikeji said.

She stated that since the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, there have not been reports of seizures, saying it would be difficult for individuals to move pangolin scales and other wildlife materials amid the pandemic.

She added that online trading would continue unhindered especially for traders who already had the scales in their possession pre-COVID-19 outbreak.

Morenikeji says owing to the economic fallout from the pandemic outbreak, post-COVID-19, there might be a rise in illegal wildlife trade if stringent measures are not put in place to protect wildlife.

The conservationist urged the government at all levels and security operatives to enforce environmental laws especially laws protecting wildlife while calling on the Judiciary to ensure the conviction of offenders.

“The Nigerian Judiciary system has been very silent when it comes to environmental laws. Some arrests have been made of people in possession of pangolin scales but the court is yet to send anyone to prison due to conviction” she said

“Until we enact enforcement to send a signal to the rest of the world that Nigeria is against illegal wildlife trade, the country will continue to be a transit route for African pangolins and other endangered species,” she further said.

It could be gathered from reports that in 2019 alone, Hong Kong and Singapore intercepted shipments of pangolin scales weighing 33.9 tonnes and worth more than $100 million, based on Singapore value. These shipments came from Nigeria.

She said that the situation calls for an urgent need for the government to empower law enforcement agencies and drive more awareness while recognising patriotic and incorruptible officers.

“The Endangered Species Act of Nigeria states that any person found in possession of any species listed in schedule 1 where we have the pangolins, is liable to pay a fine of N5 Million at first offence and a compulsory prison term of one year for second and subsequent offences without the option of fine,” the conservationist said.