Public health worries rise as Nigerians consume grilled crocodile meat

    Following the consumption of grilled crocodile in Nigeria, Dayo Oyewo writes on the concerns of health experts and wild life conservationists

    A renewed interest in the consumption of crocodile meat in Nigeria has raised concerns among the proponents of wildlife conservation in the country.

    Over the years, the barbecue business has become a profitable venture in Nigeria, aided by a significant growth in patronage.

    From upscale restaurants to local roadside vendors, the grilling business boasts of a variety of seafood and meat.

    It is also a common sight as they are openly displayed to the delight of those who are enamoured by the sumptuous taste of the delicacy.

    What appears a gradual shift from the norm, however, is the craving for a grilled crocodile and alligators.

    Just like other meat popular for its unique taste, crocodiles and other non-domesticated animals are used in the preparation of bush meat.

    Although wild aquatic reptiles have been a source of food for humans, many people are still hesitant to eat the meat, either for cultural or personal reasons.

    Also referred to as gator meat, not many Nigerians consider it as such that is worth a list of their staple foods.

    Commonly known to be sold across some markets close to the riverine areas, the addition of crocodile meat to the varieties of the barbecued menu, however, looked seemingly strange, as it used to be a type of meat known to be eaten without much public attention.

    In 2022, a video emerged on social media where two vendors were seen making a grand entry into a party organised by a popular socialite while carrying a chopped barbecued crocodile to the amazement of the guests present.

    The viral video would later set in motion instances where grilled crocodiles were being served to guests at ceremonies, as well as a frenzy of crocodile barbecue businesses with little or no consideration for the position of the laws regarding wildlife.

    As the grilled reptile now becomes a menu ready to be served at seafood restaurants and high-octane social events, a gradual increase in demand for consumption seems to be threatening the continued advocacy for the conservation of wildlife.

    As much as conservators fear that this may result in another spike in the poaching of wildlife animals, as against the need to protect them from extinction, public health experts expressed concern about a potential health implication and disease outbreaks.

    Endangered Species Act

    The Endangered Species Act 1985 enacted in Nigeria was to provide for the conservation and management of the country’s wildlife and the protection of some of its endangered species in danger of extinction as a result of over-exploitation, as required under certain international treaties to which Nigeria is a signatory.

    The Endangered Species (Control of International Trade and Traffic)(Amendment) Act, 2016 amends the Endangered Species (Control of International Trade and Traffic) Act in Section 5 to review the fines upwards to have a more deterrent effect and reflect the economic realities.

    President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Endangered Species (Control of International Trade and Traffic) Amendment Act 2016 into law.

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    While the law was amended to bring the penalty provisions in line with economic realities, it also sought to discourage traffic and improve the preservation of endangered species in Nigeria.

    Despite this, the poaching and consumption of crocodile meat and the production of their skins for commercial purposes had thrived unhindered in Nigeria due to weak regulation.

    While the skins are predominantly produced and sold in the northern region where a good number of tanneries do exist, the meats are largely consumed in the southern region with a series of bubbling wild animal markets.

    Like some animals that have gone into extinction, environmentalists fear the same fate may befall crocodiles as endangered species.

    Exploring the grilled crocodile business

    Sunkanmi Agbede who lives in the Alimosho suburb of Lagos State takes a special interest in consuming the grilled crocodile at a spot in the area of Surulere.

    He, however, does not go alone as he visits in the company of his colleagues.

    “I didn’t eat crocodiles until my friend introduced me to the grilled ones. I consider it as other grilled bush meat but you know the way they serve grilled croc is such that you cannot eat it alone. That is why I prefer to go with my friends,” he said.

    In a bid to push their sales through, some of the outlets engage in vigorous publicity on the internet.

    While running a check, our correspondent discovered that some of the outlets promote the grilled crocodile business via their social media handles and other online market platforms.

    Corroborating this, another resident who preferred to be identified as Kenneth said he got attracted to it when he saw it online.

    “I stumbled on it on Instagram and I became so curious with the way it was grilled. Ordinarily, I love to satisfy my curiosity. So I went ahead to locate the place and that was when I started to eat it,” he said.

    Meanwhile, the price of crocodile meat varies depending on the location and the species. It is, however, quite expensive.

    Further checks revealed that grilled crocodile meats are sold according to their sizes. These include baby crocodiles which have been made alternatives to the bigger ones.

    It was also gathered that the cost ranges from N100,000 to N300,000 while the giant-sized grilled crocodile is sold from N450,000 upward.

    In other areas where it is more readily available, however, it can be more affordable.

    FG condemns wildlife crime

    The Minister of State for Environment, Iziaq Salako, recently celebrates the diverse wildlife treasures of Nigeria, just as he frowned at the illegal logging and poaching that threatens their survival.

    In a post on made on his X handle, Salako called for urgent action to protect the country’s natural heritage and the vital roles the animals play in the nation’s ecosystems.

    “Let’s join forces to combat wildlife crime and say no to illegal bushmeat,” he added.

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    Speaking in the video, he said, “Nigeria is blessed with iconic wildlife, elephant Gorilla, pangolin and so much more. But this beautiful animal is threatened by illegal logging and poaching. And we will lose our national heritage if we don’t stand up for wildlife. So please report wildlife crime and say no to illegal poaching. Because protecting nature protects our future.”

    Experts opinion

    According to the results of a study published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology, the consumption of reptile meat could cause some health problems.

    A veterinary public health expert, Dr Babatunde Saka, said the fear for the health implications associated with the consumption of crocodile meat as well as other wild animals was due to the unavailability of vet inspection officers to certify that they are safe for consumption.

    He stated further that poaching wildlife unnecessarily was highly frowned upon while citing the outbreak of Ebola in Africa as a result of hunting bats.

    He said, “Crocodiles as we know them belong to the classification of wildlife species and their consumption is a cultural thing that varies across different parts of the world.

    “There are different species and out of 22 or thereabouts, I think about seven of them are considered as classified. Categorically, there is a public health implication for the consumption of crocodiles.

    “This cuts across every other animal that is classified as a wildlife animal, because in the course of poaching and slaughtering them, there is no vet inspection officer to certify that they are safe for consumption.

    “It is a classical saying in biomedical sciences that 75 per cent of infectious diseases come from animals, particularly from wildlife animals and the greatest belief by the World Health Organisation is that the next possible infectious disease is going to come from wildlife animals.

    “They are a reservoir of diseases that are known and unknown.

    “That is why it is impactful that crocodiles as a wild animal have severe public health importance/implications for their consumption by humans.

    “To a large extent, it is highly discouraging, especially from our point of view as professionals in this field. Even beyond slaughtering or eating it, poaching wildlife unnecessarily is highly frowned upon.

    “To recall, the outbreak of Ebola in Africa was a result of hunting bats. And bat classically is a reservoir of all sorts of viruses that we can imagine.”

    Saka added that the same was extended to other wildlife, including crocodiles, stating that beyond the dangers of being bitten by crocodiles, there is an enormous danger of contracting diseases in the reptiles.

    While noting that wild animals with pathogens may not show any symptoms or signs as they don’t get ill at all, he explained that they are carriers of these pathogens such as the next animal different from this kind of species or the next human that comes across them contracts the pathogen and exhibits the symptoms of the disease.

    “The government needs more public enlightenment in sensitising the people on the dangers of such consumption and the dangers of getting too close to wildlife, not because people are likely to get sick but because of the epidemic that could lead to serious consequences,” he added.

    On his part, the President of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria, Prof. Wasiu Afolabi, averred that while crocodile is a source of protein, several other alternative animals are categorized as human consumption.

    According to him, crocodiles have a lot of microorganisms, particularly bacteria and if not properly cooked may expose one to contracting diseases.

    “From the nutritional point of view, wildlife is a rich source of protein but if they are protected animals, one will not support the consumption of such animals as a source of protein because we have several other alternatives that are animals categorised as those for human consumption.

    “If I also follow the trend, I am sure that those who are consuming grilled crocodiles would probably be those who are in the upper socioeconomic class. And this is a source of concern, particularly for conservators and environmentalists who will not subscribe to it.

    “Crocodiles have a lot of microorganisms, particularly bacteria, and consuming such food when it is not adequately processed can also expose consumers to contracting some of these bacteria that are pathogenic and can cause diseases,” he said.

    Prof Afolabi, however, called on regulatory agencies and government health departments to wade into this and bring out policies that would guide the hunting of such animals and processing them for food.

    “Generally in Nigeria, people consume what we call wild animals, including those that are protected by laws. We don’t have effective laws and regulations, which is why some people still hunt them.

    “Also, there are quite a number of them that ought to have been declared as threatened to become extinct.

    “So, until the government comes out to formulate policies on which wild games or animals people can consume or which ones are protected, this is when one will say that if there are ones that are not protected, then people are at liberty to hunt, kill and consume, and if there are ones that are protected, then it will be against the law and anybody that hunts them for food will have to be prosecuted,” he added.