The illegal wildlife trade: modus operandi and transport routes in West and Central Africa

24 October 2021
By the Environmental Investigation Agency

The illegal wildlife trade (IWT) poses a risk not only to biodiversity and ecosystems, but also to public health, good governance, economies and security worldwide. Given that the point of sourcing and the end-market are often on opposite sides of the world, criminals exploit existing international transport systems to move their products, and Customs authorities have a critical role to play in disrupting their activities. They must therefore be equipped with the knowledge, resources and capacity to capitalize on their strategic position in the trade chain in order to monitor and control the transboundary movement of illegal wildlife products.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) [1] is a non-governmental organization dedicated to combating environmental crime, with over 35 years’ experience in tackling wildlife trafficking. The aim of this article is to share the data we have collected, and the results of the analyses and investigations we have carried out, on IWT modus operandi and transport routes in West and Central Africa, with a particular focus on Nigeria which has emerged as the principal exit point for illicit ivory and pangolin scales leaving Africa for Asian markets.

Shifting tides: West and Central Africa

In its December 2020 report, Out of Africa, EIA reveals that there has been a marked shift of ivory and pangolin trafficking operations from Eastern and Southern Africa to West and Central Africa, with the products being destined for East and Southeast Asia.[2]

This year alone, Nigerian Customs has seized nearly 17 tonnes of ivory and pangolin scales, in two separate seizures in January and July, indicative of the central role of Nigeria in the large-scale illegal wildlife trade, and of the work done by Customs authorities.[3]

Despite some successful seizures of wildlife contraband, significant challenges remain in terms of ensuring that Customs in the region can play an impactful role in deterring and disrupting wildlife crime. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the situation. EIA’s data shows that wildlife criminals are exploiting corruption, the lack of scanning equipment and the reduction in staff availability during the pandemic in order to smuggle wildlife across borders.

Criminal networks operating in West and Central Africa’s export hubs extend across a swathe of the region’s tropical rainforests and savannahs, presenting sustained threats to the last strongholds of forest and savannah elephants and pangolin species (white- and black-bellied and giant ground pangolins) in the region. Smuggling routes involve many countries, including Togo, Cameroon, Gabon, DR Congo, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire and Benin.

Transit and export hubs along the illegal wildlife trade chain

© Environmental Investigation Agency
Nigeria Customs seized elephant tusks, pangolin scales and lion skulls, teeth and claws in February 2021

Since 2016, Nigeria has been implicated in global seizures of nearly 40 tonnes of ivory and 184 tonnes of pangolin scales, representing many thousands of dead elephants and pangolins. In many seizures, ivory and pangolin scales have been found in the same shipment, demonstrating a high level of convergence. Ivory and pangolin traffickers may also be involved in trafficking other wildlife commodities such as rhino horn, lion teeth, seahorses and shark fins, as well as donkey skins and timber.

Through undercover investigations conducted in West and Central Africa, EIA has highlighted how ivory and pangolin scales are being trafficked across the region, into and out of Nigeria; for example, illegal wildlife products are sourced from suppliers in Cameroon before being sold to customers in Nigeria and abroad – to predominantly Vietnamese and Chinese buyers. Lagos-based traders are known to work closely with clearing agents, who in turn exploit corrupt connections with Government officials, particularly in the Customs departments of specific sea and airports, to export ivory and pangolin scales in staggering quantities. These highly organized and sophisticated operations span multiple jurisdictions and violate Customs laws, as well as laws related to wildlife/environmental protection, organized crime, conspiracy, money laundering and corruption.

Concealment methods

© Environmental Investigation Agency
Pangolin scales smuggled out of Nigeria, as shown to EIA investigators

Traffickers in West and Central Africa are known to exploit the services of major maritime shipping and air transport companies to move their illicit cargo. These companies include Maersk, Pacific International Lines, Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airlines and Emirates Airlines.[4] Smugglers use a variety of concealment methods or “fillers” to disguise ivory and pangolin scales, their choice being dictated by the legality of the filler, costs, and whether the filler is similar in shape and size to the contraband. For example, cashew nuts have been found to be commonly used to hide pangolin scales sent by sea freight from Nigeria to Asia, often exported from Apapa seaport. Other types of fillers used by traffickers include donkey skins, ginger root, peanuts, beans, timber, plastic, charcoal, palm oil and moringa seeds.

From Nigeria to Vietnam

Traders in Nigeria work closely with shipping agents at major hubs, including Apapa seaport and Lagos airport, to export illegal goods. Although there are direct route options from Nigeria to seaports in Vietnam such as Hai Phong, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City, most syndicates opt for transhipment and/or transit locations such as Malaysia and Singapore so as to circumvent detection. Repacking of goods and bill switching may take place through clearing agents during transit, before onward transportation to Vietnam and China via air, sea or land routes. Upon arrival, clearing agents at the destination are responsible for clearing the illicit ivory and pangolin scale shipments before forwarding them to the importers, who then sell the goods on to processors and/or end consumers.

Table: Examples of recent large-scale seizures of ivory and pangolin scales implicating Nigeria and Vietnam[5] 


Role of corruption

It is universally understood that corruption “oils” organized crime, and IWT is no exception.[6] Nigeria is regarded as a “safe” country for the trade and shipment of illegal goods by wildlife traffickers, specifically because bribes can easily be paid – and accepted. Corruption enables criminals to avoid detection, seizure and arrest, and may even permit them to retrieve their goods on the rare occasions when they have been seized by the authorities. Up to 70 per cent of the fees charged by corrupt clearing agents are for bribes to government officials and private transport company staff involved in the inspection process.

Our research indicates that illegal traders in Nigeria will commonly build up a network of corrupt individuals, including shipping line staff, Customs officials and the port security staff involved in scanning shipments. They work as a team and share the bribes paid by illegal wildlife traders and freight agents. Further, there is evidence that traffickers use multiple front companies to disguise their illegal business, using each company two to three times before switching to a new one.

Impact of COVID-19

The impact of COVID-19 on wildlife trafficking has led to a dynamic situation. EIA data indicates a significant drop in the number of seizures of ivory and pangolin scales reported in 2020 and 2021, compared with previous years, most likely due to global travel restrictions and the reduction in passenger flights due to the pandemic. The decrease in the number of seizures may be due to fewer enforcement staff available to conduct investigations and detect shipments at borders as well as reduced reporting of wildlife seizures due to pandemic priorities.  However, EIA investigations have also confirmed that ivory and pangolin scale trafficking is continuing despite the pandemic, as demonstrated by Nigerian Customs’ seizure of nearly 17 tonnes of ivory and pangolin scales between January and August 2021.

© Environmental Investigation Agency
Raw ivory offered for sale by traders in Nigeria during EIA investigations

Vietnamese and Chinese buyers who used to visit Nigeria to carry out transactions have been prevented from travelling during the pandemic. Traffickers have adapted to the travel and transport restrictions, with suppliers and buyers increasingly using online communication and social media platforms. Furthermore, testimony from traffickers suggests that throughout the pandemic large amounts of wildlife contraband have been stockpiled in anticipation of renewed business post-COVID-19. As international travel resumes, it will be especially important for Customs and law enforcement authorities to maintain and strengthen checks at border crossings in order to disrupt wildlife trafficking attempts.

It also appears that less stringent checks at sea ports have led to the continued use of maritime shipments. Despite intelligence suggesting that business has slowed on the receiving end in Asia, it is believed that goods are still being shipped to Vietnam and Malaysia by sea.

Corrupt practices have also continued during the pandemic. Intelligence suggests that workers at seaports may have been more willing to accept bribes from traffickers as a means of mitigating the economic hardships linked to national lockdowns, and even that the price for clearing shipments of ivory and pangolin scales has increased during lockdown.


Identifying and addressing corruption within key government agencies, including Customs, is key to tackling wildlife crime; EIA encourages national Customs authorities to work closely with national anti-corruption bodies to ensure corrupt elements are investigated and prosecuted.

Given the transboundary nature of illegal wildlife trade, international and regional coordination is key to disrupting and deterring wildlife criminals. Furthermore, it is also necessary to incentivize shipping companies, clearing agents, freight forwarders and other private transport operators to enhance the security of the supply and transportation system and effectively cooperate with Customs officials to detect, seize and investigate wildlife trafficking. With elephant and pangolin populations in severe decline in West and Central Africa, including some local extinctions, there is no time to waste.

More information


[1] The Environmental Investigation Agency,

[2] EIA (2020), Out of Africa: How West and Central Africa have become the epicentre of ivory and pangolin scale trafficking to Asia [online]. Available at: [Accessed 08/09/2021].

[3] EIA, (2021). Huge ivory and pangolin scale bust in Nigeria is a chance to disrupt wildlife crime networks [online]. Available at : [Accessed 08/09/2021]; Nigeria seizes seven tonnes of pangolin scales as analysis launches to help it fight wildlife crime [online]. Available at: [Accessed 08/09/2021].

[4] EIA has engaged in preliminary discussions with these companies and will continue to share actionable intelligence.

[5] EIA, Global Environmental Crime Tracker.

[6] UNODC, Corruption and wildlife and forest crime [online]. Available at: [Accessed 08/09/2021].