Saving Nigeria's primates
The illegal exportation of threatened primates first came to national attention in April 1995, when a cargo of one baby male gorilla and seven drill monkeys smuggled out of Nigeria was intercepted by Philippines security officials at Manila airport. The captive primates were finally returned in July 1997.
Less than two months later, five Chinese businessmen en route for Hong Kong were arrested in Amsterdam carrying a large quantity of ivory and hides from Nigeria. The smugglers were released after paying a fine of US$7,000, but the seized animals have not been returned to Nigeria, as provided for by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species(CITES).
A recent investigation was carried out by the regional manager for Africa of the World Society for the Protection of Animals(WSPA), Mike Pugh. This investigation revealed an illegal trade in wildlife on an unprecedented level.
Posing as a buyer, Pugh was able to uncover the thriving racket in wildlife smuggling and the involvement of government officials. For instance, two wildlife officials in the northern city of Kano offered to supply him with 44 chimpanzees and three gorillas annually for the right price.
Pugh was also told about other dealers in the wildlife smuggling business, including one who specialises in illegal exportation of gorillas to Pakistan and another who smuggles 40 chimpanzees and eight gorillas to Egypt each year.
When Pugh said he would like to export chimpanzees and a couple of other endangered primates out of Nigeria, officials of Kano State Wildlife Unit initially told him the exportation of the species was illegal. However a free disposal permit was later issued to him upon payment of a bribe, according to a letter from the WSPA to the Nigerian government late last year.
Pugh also easily obtained a health certificate for the animals from another official. Curiously, no one bothered to see the animals Pugh told them he wanted to export.
These findings may appear alarming, but the illegal exportation of endangered wildlife from Nigeria is nothing new. While it is generally agreed that the country is richly blessed with a large number of different wildlife species, the combined activities of hunters, poachers and bush burning have severely depleted Nigeria's wildlife population.
About 50 different species in the country are believed to have completely disappeared since the 1970s. Thirty others are endangered and experts say they may become extinct within the next decade.
"Some of the animals that have disappeared from Nigeria in recent times include cheetahs, pygmy hippopotamus, giraffes, the black rhinoceros and giant elands," says the report of a committee the Nigerian government established last year to look into the issue. "About 10-12 species of primates, including the white throated guenon species of primates and sclater's guenon, are under threat due to habitat loss and deforestation."
Sclater's guenon in particular has been fortunate not to have suffered much from poaching because locals attach sacred status to the primates and make it a taboo to hunt or eat them. But the activities of loggers has none the less destroyed much of its habitat, and it was only recently that the Nigeria Conservation Foundation (NCF), in conjunction with the conservation organisation WWF made the Okomu forest reserve for the endangered species.
Other primates such as lowland gorillas, chimpanzees and drill monkeys have not been as lucky as the sclater's guenon. They are favourites of wildlife smugglers and they are hunted for their meat. Local environmentalists are pressing for measures to protect the endangered species. Some complain that the government is not showing enough commitment to enforcing laws on wildlife protection, but others believe existing sanctions are too light.
However, while environmentalists work to save the primates and other endangered species, it has been pointed out that local hunters should be introduced to alternative ways of making a living.
"Unless an effort is made to show the hunters alternative sources of income, as well as enforcing the laws that exist to protect these species, the forest-dwelling primates of southern Nigeria will become extinct," says Jennifer Scell, manager of Cercopan, a non-governmental organisation that runs a rehabilitation and conservation centre for forest monkeys in Calabar.
Abiodun Raufu works for the Saturday Punch in Lagos, Nigeria.