On Wednesday July 19, 2023, the trial of three Vietnamese and one Guinean national accused of trafficking 7.1 tonnes of pangolin scales and 850 kgs of ivory concluded in Nigeria with the conviction of the four accused.
The judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria in Lagos sentenced the accused to six years of imprisonment each or payment of fines in lieu of imprisonment.
The four accused – Phan Viet Chi, Phan Hong Quan, Duong Van Thang, and Mory Berrette – were arrested by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) on May 12, 2022, acting on information provided by the Wildlife Justice Commission.
They are said to be high-ranking members of a major organised crime group involved in the trafficking of ivory and pangolin scales from Nigeria and rhino horn and lion bones from Mozambique and South Africa to Vietnam.
The Vietnamese accused were in Nigeria actively sourcing pangolin scales and are the first Vietnamese arrested for wildlife trafficking in Nigeria.
Since their arrest in May 2022, the accused have remained in custody in Nigeria. The detention of the accused for over a year prior to the trial appeared to demonstrate the severity of the charges.
The defendants were arraigned by the NCS on July 20, 2022, for alleged illegal possession, dealing in, assembling, storing, smuggling and trading in pangolin scale and elephant’s ivory. The trial started in November 2022 and concluded this month.
The four defendants applied to change their pleas from “Not Guilty” to “Guilty” via a plea bargain arrangement. On July 19, the prosecution filed the terms of the plea bargain agreement and the defendants pleaded guilty to each of the four counts.
“The judge’s decision recognises wildlife crime as serious organised crime and sends an important signal to wildlife traffickers, that this trade will no longer be considered a ‘low-risk, high-reward’ venture for criminals out to make a profit. That said, to prompt a stronger deterrent effect for wildlife crimes, a higher sentence without the option of evading imprisonment through fine payments would have been more appropriate considering the seriousness of such crimes and the key role of the offenders,” said Olivia Swaak-Goldman, Executive Director of the Wildlife Justice Commission.
The case, it was gathered, represents a watershed moment in respect to investigating and prosecuting wildlife crime in Nigeria. The arrest and conviction of these four suspects is described as the product of the first major intelligence-led undercover investigation into two organised crime networks, one Guinean and one Vietnamese, that were responsible for the trafficking of tonnes of ivory and pangolin scales from Nigeria to Vietnam.
The investigation is said to have highlighted the benefits of follow-up investigations after major seizures and the importance of international cooperation in bringing wildlife traffickers to justice.
Since July 2021, the ongoing partnership between the NCS and the Wildlife Justice Commission has resulted in the arrest of 21 suspects and seizure of over 9 tonnes of pangolin scales and over 1 tonne of ivory. The rather successful partnership enabled the disruption of the criminal networks trafficking ivory and pangolin scales in Nigeria, with trafficking reaching its lowest level in five years, several key players arrested, while others are on the run and in hiding. It also led to the displacement of ivory and pangolin scales trafficking from Nigeria to other countries.
“The sentence imposed on the four accused may not be appropriate considering the crimes committed; however, from an investigation point of view, the results have been ground-breaking. This investigation has laid bare the modus operandi of the criminal networks trafficking wildlife commodity from Nigeria and Mozambique to Vietnam, including how they converge with more traditional crimes and how they launder their money. We now have a greater understanding of Vietnamese trafficking networks operating in Africa than we ever had, which can be used to continue efforts to disrupt and dismantle the networks.
“We have also seen a massive reduction in the trafficking of pangolins, once the world’s most trafficked mammal. There has not been a reported seizure of pangolin scales in Asia originating from Africa in over 550 days. There is no clearer example of the importance of disrupting organised crime networks. The Wildlife Justice Commission is committed to continue supporting the NCS to maintain the current downward trafficking trend and to further disrupt the trafficking of wildlife from Nigeria to Asia,” said Steve Carmody, Director of Programmes at the Wildlife Justice Commission.