May 13, 2009

Nigerian Crocs Face Extinction

Environmentalists fear that a surge in demand for crocodile skins in Nigeria could threaten the reptiles with extinction.

Indeed, business is booming at Ismail Dauda's crocodile tannery in Northern Nigeria. Dauda, 35, followed his father Maifata into the family business of tanning crocodile and python pelts when he was just 15.  

The tannery, located in the old part of Nigeria's main northern city of Kano, "processes" up to 20,000 animals in a good month.

"We have been tanning snake and crocodile skins here for 120 years, but in the last few years we had a boost in our business... there is more demand and there is more market for it," Dauda said during an interview with AFP.

Some crocodiles are still alive when they are brought to Dauda's tannery.  Workers rope the reptiles' jaws together, turn them on their backs and slit their throats.

The meat is sold to those living in the south of the country, while the skins, once tanned, are exported to China, India and Saudi Arabia to be made into luxury leather products such as shoes and handbags.

Processed python skins typically sell for four dollars per square meter, while a crocodile pelt can sell for $40 to $170 depending on its size, said Dauda.

"It is a fact the volume of supplies has dropped in a decade which is perhaps an indication the rate of killing is higher than their regeneration rate, but this is a business we can't stop because it is very lucrative," he said while stirring a pit containing a rancid smelling blend of ash, potash and soda ash in which dozens of crocodile skins were being soaked.

Environmentalists are livid that crocodiles might soon face extinction in Nigeria, simply because their hides are used as fashion accessories for the wealthy.

"The trade is unregulated, is illegal, is not recorded. Two species are almost extinct now," said Mathew Dore, an environmentalist who has worked with crocodiles for years, during an interview with AFP from the southern state of Edo.

The Nile crocodile, whose skin is the most valuable, is "very, very scarce, almost extinct" in Nigeria, he said. 

"The most abundant species now is the West African dwarf crocodile most commonly found in the Niger Delta, and with all this oil pollution and poverty issues, dependence on the crocodile (market) is continuous and unregulated," he said.

It is not a coincidence the hide of the West African dwarf crocodile is less prized for leather goods.

"Ninety percent of the skins are from illegally hunted animals," environmental activist Desmond Majekodunmi told AFP.

"The population has been absolutely decimated. Immediate action needs to be taken, otherwise we will find our crocodile population has gone below the capacity to regenerate itself."

Indeed, stocks of local crocodile have become so depleted that hunters are now bringing in reptiles from Chad, Cameroon and Ghana.

A 1985 Nigerian law intended to protect the crocodile and the python does not prevent their skins from being sold at Lagos airport, right in front of customs agents.

"It does not require much effort to clear the skins at the airport. All you need to do is to pay the officials off," Dauda told AFP.

"The officials at the airport... sometimes visit this tannery and we give them some token even if we have no goods to export."

Local Nigerian officials said the federal government was to blame for not enforcing the law.

"The responsibility of stopping trade in the skins of endangered species such as crocodiles lies with the federal government that controls the airports and security agencies," said state environment commissioner, Garba Yusuf, in an interview with AFP.

"If the security agencies live up to their duty of arresting and prosecuting offenders, the trade will be stopped because once it becomes impossible to export the skins the demand will drop and the tanners and traders will be out of business."

Dore said crocodile farming was practically unheard of in Nigeria since the gestation period was long enough to deter farmers seeking short-term profitability. Since crocodiles do not reproduce until the age of five, farmers typically wait for 10 or 15 years before they can begin selling animals, Dore said.

The 1996 World Conservation Union (IUCN) list of endangered species classified the Nile crocodile as "lower risk".  The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists the reptile as threatened with extinction in some areas and "not threatened, but trade must be controlled" in others.