Nigeria: How Illegal Wildlife Trade Decimated Nigeria's Vultures

29 January 2018

Queen of Vultures

Her mastery of the trade in Vultures impresses, and she may be called the Queen of the economy which has risen around the bird. Born in one of the bird markets in the ancient city, she is the fairly elegant vulture merchant of Ibadan, one who knows all the nooks and crannies of the illegal trade in wildlife. This economy is also part of regional trade, for Vultures are brought into Nigeria from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Niger Republic, and from several other countries. One can speak of a living trail which spans rivers, hills, plains and valleys in West Africa, and pauses briefly in Nigeria before moving to other parts of the region. Many of these birds empty into the North West, North Central, South West, as well as other parts of Nigeria. But the rate of supply is much higher than the natural ability of the bird to reproduce. This may spell doom for the bird which is known as Angulu, Ungulu or Kolo in parts of the north, and Igun in Yoruba speaking areas of the country. If she is the Queen of the trade, then the market around her immediately becomes her palace. It is a palace strewn with many bird and animal parts, rather than pillars or courtiers. In the palace there is the smell of dead birds and dead animals.But it seems that the decay has been arrested by some method which is not very clear to the reporter, but the smell of dead birds remains. Nearby, traders debate the cost of some rare birds which have just been brought in. Voices rise and fall. Then they rise again as the sun begins to set. Mama Risikat (not real name) boasts in response to a question "I have sold 50 Vultures every year, for 30 years," but she insists with a smile, that the figure is much higher than the one given.

With the help of Emmanuel Owan, Principal Conservation Officer, NCF, Daily Trust observed in Calabar, Cross River state vultures flying freely at the Ikot Enebong abbatoir and at another abbatoir located at Atakpa where there were quite a number of vultures seen on the rooftops .The next abbatoir visited is the one located within the parliamentary Extension part of the city. There were also sightings of free flying vultures at the Abuja National Children's Park & Zoo, as well as in the Ajebo old market, Ibadan, Oyo state where they were seen in cages. The Yan Kaji section of the Sabon Gari market in Kano also presents at least one caged vulture. At Yan Kaji, the trade in vultures is secret, rather than open. In Abuja, Bashiru Sani is Chairman, Bird sellers Association.He sells birds in cages near the Central Mosque, and says that he regularly gets live vultures from Lagos and Sokoto, with a single one costing N80,000. At Fegin-Baza, as well as Sakiya in Tsafe local government of Zamfara state, children have no idea what a vulture is.The same response is given by children at Giwa in Kaduna state,and Argungu in Kebbi state .

Ecosystem service worth $11,000

"The hooded vulture was seen in those days commonly around abbatoirs. But it has declined up to 83 % of its population ,and it is in all parts of Nigeria apart from the South West," says Dr.Onoja Joseph, Director, Technical Programmes, Nigeria Conservation Foundation (NCF). He adds "It has been estimated that a vulture in its lifetime does an ecosystem service worth $11,000, because by the time you consider the health implications of the spread of diseases ,the treatment,the human loss and things like that.If you put everything together ,just on health alone, it amounts to $11,000." Joseph, who has a background in Ornithology, reasons "The decline in the population of vultures is not just in West Africa, but it affects the whole of Africa. The reasons that explain this decline are similar, but in East and South Africa, these are more because of electrocution and collision with power lines, but we don't have that much here. In South Africa, they have wind farms and power lines. Our own decline owes largely to poisoning and persecution. The vulture is critically endangered. When you talk about a bird being critically endangered, you are saying that 80-90% of its population has gone, and the remaining 10-15% is just at the brink of survival.If there is any catastrophe, it will just wipe of the population, and we will lose that species forever."

Ayo Ajayi Odejimi, of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Akure comments "The vulture is now classified as an endangered species, therefore there is the need to protect the species from getting to the stage of extinction.The vulture is being used traditionally, and there is a big market for it, because of that aspect. People use it for ritual purposes. Thats the biggest challenge for it."

"There are about twenty two (22) different species all over the world but the Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus are the most common species in Nigeria. According to IUCN, this species is experiencing an extremely rapid decline due to indiscriminate poisoning, trade for traditional medicine, hunting, persecution and electrocution, as well as habitat loss. This vulture is listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN rating,"adds Isa Suleiman of the Kano University of Science and Technology, Wudil.

Hunting

Ibrahim Goni, Conservator-General & Chief Executive Officer, National Parks Service of Nigeria, goes down memory lane "Prior to the year 2000, the population of vultures was not something to cry about in Nigeria, but from the year 2000, the population had drastically reduced in such a way that vultures are no longer sighted. They are sighted in very exclusive areas, particularly in the southern part of the country, rather than the northern part where they were initially sighted in more numbers. The reasons that can be adduced for this, include the loss of their habitat." He says "The easiest way to destroy a species is not through hunting, but by destroying the habitat of that species. Once you destroy the habitat of a species, you have displaced it. It either migrates, or in the course of migration, it encounters a lot of dangers .It can be hunted, it can be captured, and it can die. Another reason that has reduced the population of vultures, is hunting by humans for food and for their parts, which are considered very important in traditional medicine."

Zubairu Wada sells traditional medicines along a popular street in Kano, and he boasts "There is no way they can stop this business. There is demand for vulture eggs, that is, freshly laid eggs and this is by people who are into money making rituals. "He makes another boast "on a monthly basis between one hundred and fifty and two hundred vulture heads are brought to Kano from Senegal and Ghana."This means that one thousand eight hundred vulture heads are brought into Kano each year, if we calculate using the figure of one hundred and fifty heads per month.

Vultures & elections

Saidu Danshanono trades in bird parts at the famous Giwa grains market near Zaria in Kaduna state. Daily Trust met him five years ago while doing an earlier investigation into the conservation status of the vulture. "There are no more vultures in Nigeria. I get my vultures from contacts in Niger republic and Cameroun." He adds that most of the requests for vultures that he gets are from politicians, hinting that the 2019 elections would result in further depletion of any vultures present in the region. He chuckles "The population of vultures in Nigeria has collapsed. Vultures are no longer available. We may need to import vultures before the 2019 elections." Isyaku Hussaini, a pastoralist in Giwa, tells Daily Trust "A herdsman needs the vultures nest for rituals.He can even pay up to N10,000 for him to get a vulture nest. It is said to be a good cure for foot and mouth disease in cows."

"People have also advanced reasons in respect of the juju trade.This is just based on belief, because how do you think that the head of a dead vulture gives you all the wisdom and foresight you need. People go hunting for vultures for the juju trade, because there are people who believe in it," argues Professor Shiiwua Manu, Director, A. P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute, University of Jos. "In a recent survey that we conducted in some states in Nigeria, we found out that a whole vulture costs between 30,000 to 50,000 Naira .They use it for different things, from magical powers to goodluck charms, goodluck in winning elections, and things like that," Joseph explains. Quick delivery in women, solution to psychological problems, cures for epilepsy and insanity, success in court cases, help for a child learning to walk, above all even the gift of clairvoyance, are just some of the thirty stunning beliefs Daily Trust uncovered from a variety of sources, which have been attributed to the vulture, and explain why it is being hunted.

'It collapsed '

"I stopped seeing vultures twenty years ago", says Buhari Aliyu, General Manager, Sokoto Modern Abbatoir, "It's like destiny', he continues as young men use knives to slice into meat not very far from us, and others convey meat outside using wheel barrows, "nobody can explain why the numbers have collapsed. It just collapsed." At Kara market, also in Sokoto, Rabiu Abdullahi, Chairman, Traditional Medicine Sellers, exclaims "It's hard to get vultures today. I haven't seen live or dead ones this year (2017).But usually if hunters catch vultures, they will bring them to Kara market."Another trader at the market, who prefers anonymity, confesses that he is just a front. He pretends to be selling some ordinary, everyday items, for instance, 'But if people have a lion's head or skin, they will bring it to me,and I will arrange to sell it. I recently sold a dead hyena.I bought it at N180,000 ,and sold it for N280,000."The illegal trade in wildlife has formed a network, and it uses fronts and decoys in order to succeed.

'Popular bird'

In Ibadan, Daily Trust comes across Ajelekan Tawakalitu at the Ajebo Old Market, where she has been selling vultures for the past 25 years. She trades in both live and dead vultures, and adds that vulture eggs, head, feathers and the legs are the various parts most sought after by her patrons. A live bird cost N40,000, while a dead one goes for N15,000. She says that a single vulture egg today costs between N35,000 and N40,000. Traders at Ajebo market make good money from the sale of vulture parts, which is the most sought after bird on sale. But she adds paradoxically, that she "does not know why people need vultures." Zubairu Alhassan suddenly turns up at Ajebo market. He is an important link in the vulture trade, for he regularly conveys vultures brought from Burkina Faso into Nigeria, and he is strategically based in Sokoto. After a while he goes silent, and refuses to answer any question.

To be continued.

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