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Any day of the week, between the hours of 7 in the morning and 5 in the evening, traders mostly women would gather at the Olowu Market in Epe, about 100 kilometers from the centre of Lagos, Nigeria and receive wildlife of different types, species and sizes from hunters. They pay the hunters a fraction of what they would get from a customer and every day, dozens of wildlife would be sold in the market.
“Before this coronavirus, we sold up to 100 different animals in a day. But now, we barely sell more than 20 in a day,” one of the traders, Lateefat Olowu, who had traded in wildlife meet for more than 20 years said.
In Nigeria, the hunting and sale of wildlife has been in existence for generation. So, when the United Nations biodiversity chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, called for a ban on wildlife markets such as Olowu, naturally, the advice did not trickle down to the city or Lagos. Neither did it got any response or reaction from the authorities in Nigeria. Wildlife meats are delicacies in different parts of Nigeria and is sold for prices higher than beaf, mutton, or chicken.
In Olowu market, grasscutter, snakes, antelopes, hedgehogs, monitor lizards, crocodile and even pangolins are regular animals on the menu. The monitor lizards, crocodiles and pangolins are usually sold alive. The others, dead.
“I am selling the pangolins for about $8 and $15,” one elderly woman said about the two small pangolins on her table. The animals would strain to escape, but a young boy nearby was always on hand to prevent that.
In Nigeria, pangolins are still easily bought and traded despite the fact that the animal has been categorised as endangered. Pangolins are traded for their meat but most especially their scales which are sold and exported for traditional Chinese medicine. According to the UN’s latest Wildlife Crime Report, Nigeria was connected to at least more 51 tonnes of illegal pangolin scales seized in 2019 alone, according to the UN’s latest Wildlife Crime Report.
Wildlife provide a ready source of protein for many Nigerians as at least 4 million people are still battling an acute food insecurity. But many have countered this argument that even though hunting the wildlife man be cheap for hunters, it is not cheap for the consumers as there are cheaper sources of protein.
The UN’s call for the ban on wildlife and wet anmarkets is hinged on the fact that how the animals are kept in such markets allow diseases to fester like the novel coronavirus that is said to have originated from a wet market in Wuhan China.
Public Health experts believe that 70 percent of newly discovered diseases are zoonotic in nature, which makes the consumption of wildlife a risky affair.
One of the traders at Olowu, Comfort Nathaniel said she ran a restaurant in which she sold wildlife meat for wildlife delicacy lovers.
Even though COVID-19 has brought about a lull in commercial activities at Olowu, this has to do more about restrictions in commercial activities than a supposed fear of wildlife meat because of the reports which came out of Wuhan.
Conservationists have been raising the alarm about the wanton killing of wildlife in Nigeria for many years as regulations are weak while there is no enforcement of existing laws prohibiting the trading of wildlife.
The government of Lagos State which is the epicenter of COVID-19 in Nigeria says it does not even have any policy on restricting or prohibiting the hunting, trading or consumption of wildlife in the state at a time the COVID-19 cases in the densely population city is has risen above 8,000.
It is clear the trading in wildlife in Nigeria is not going away anytime soon. For any change to happen in this area, experts say there must be an intentional and comprehensive reorientation of local hunters and traders.