Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport has emerged as a trafficking hub for wildlife and narcotics

Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa Bole International Airport is emerging as a new East African hotspot for the illegal trafficking of narcotics and wildlife, especially to Asian destinations. As the airport has expanded, security capacity has become a major challenge. At the same time, improvements in enforcement processes in other countries have reportedly led trafficking networks to shift their focus to air routes passing through Ethiopia.

Bole’s vulnerability demonstrates the ability of traffickers of different commodities to take advantage of the same weaknesses in enforcement capacity.

Drug trafficking through bole

Since 2017, 23 African drug couriers have been arrested at Hong Kong Airport who had come from or through Bole, according to data obtained from Hong Kong Airport Customs and Excise.

In the first week of 2020, three Tanzanians and one Kenyan travelled with cocaine from Bole and were arrested at Hong Kong International Airport. A further two Tanzanians and one Brazilian national were arrested at Bole in January 2020, bound for Mumbai, and in March a South African national was arrested at Delhi airport having transited through Bole. Most couriers were arrested for possession of cocaine.

Mengisteab Beyene, the director of Narcotic Drugs Inspection at the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission, said that the airport is being targeted by traffickers from South America aiming to supply Asian and Australasian markets,1 but the overwhelming majority of the couriers used by these groups are African nationals. Of the 23 arrested in Hong Kong since 2017, 22 were Africans, including eight Kenyans and six Tanzanians.

In September 2019, a female passenger from São Paulo was found in possession of 8 kilograms of cocaine by authorities at Bole. Lagos to Addis Ababa is also a common route. In the same month, two Nigerian nationals died en route from Lagos to Addis Ababa after cocaine pellets they had ingested opened in their bodies.

John Wotherspoon is a Catholic priest who runs a programme in Hong Kong prisons through which African nationals serving time for drug offences can potentially earn discounts on their sentences after providing information to authorities. The testimony of prisoners in Wotherspoon’s programme indicates that Nigerian traffickers based in Addis Ababa are working with East Africans to recruit Kenyan and Tanzanian couriers, often using female proxies to recruit other women.

‘Approximately half the number of Kenyan prisoners took drugs to Hong Kong via Addis knowingly and of their own volition, and the other half say they were tricked into coming to Addis for business opportunities, and once they arrived were either convinced to carry drugs overseas [or] forced to ingest and carry the drugs.’2

For example, Durra Kamau3 was arrested in the Hong Kong airport in 2018 carrying 644 grams of cocaine in her body in pellets, and now faces a prison sentence of up to 24 years. In a letter she wrote as a warning to others, Kamau recounted how, as a single mother trying to support a family, she was excited when a friend told her about a job opportunity in Hong Kong as a domestic worker. Kamau met the contact in a hotel in Addis Ababa and was told to swallow cocaine pellets. When she refused, she said, the man raped her and then forced her to ingest the pellets at knife point. ‘I asked him to kill me instead of poisoning me. He said it isn’t poison. He said I’m a fool and this is what other ladies beg to do.’

Increasing focus on bole with the decline of other regional drug trafficking hubs

‘The rise in arrests of passengers from Addis on suspicion of drug trafficking corresponds with a major drop in arrests of passengers who brought drugs from Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Kilimanjaro airports, and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport,’ Wotherspoon said.

Hong Kong Customs and Excise data shows that no Tanzanians brought drugs to Hong Kong from Tanzania in 2019, whereas 55 Tanzanian couriers, flying from Tanzania, were arrested in Hong Kong airport in 2013 and 2014. Similarly, in 2019, only one Kenyan travelled with drugs from Nairobi, whereas two Kenyans brought drugs from Addis Ababa, and a further two Kenyans brought drugs from Kampala, Uganda.

According to Wotherspoon, the change in pattern is being driven by intensified airport security in Tanzania and Kenya. This was corroborated by the deputy commissioner general of Tanzania’s Drug Control and Enforcement Authority, Dr Cassian Nyandindi. He attributed the drop to arrests of drug syndicate kingpins in Tanzania – starting in 2013 under Anti- Drugs Unit head Godfrey Nzowa – and the repeal of the ineffective Drugs and Prevention of Illicit Traffic in Drugs Act (1995), which was replaced by the Drug Control and Enforcement Act (2015).4 This enabled the establishment of the Drug Control and Enforcement Authority (replacing the Anti-Drugs Unit), a body with wide-ranging powers, including the power to bear weapons and use armed officers when arresting drug traffickers, seize bank accounts of suspected drug traffickers for a specific period, and regulate importation and illegal possession of restricted chemicals that can be used in the production of heroin, cocaine and improvised explosive devices.

‘For a long time, the security at JNIA [Julius Nyerere International Airport] was poor, and traffickers exploited this,’ Nyandindi said, adding that passport fraud was also a problem, ‘meaning that many of those trafficking drugs under a Tanzanian passport were not in fact Tanzanian nationals.’

Parallel developments in the illegal wildlife trade

The number of illegal wildlife specimens detected in Bole has dropped considerably since 2015, according to an assessment carried out by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).5 However, while seizures of wildlife products are not being made at the airport itself, Ethiopia as a whole and Bole specifically have emerged in recent years as a major transit hub for wildlife trafficking.

The ROUTES [Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species] Partnership, an initiative led by the US Agency for International Development to counter wildlife trafficking through air routes, collects open-source data on wildlife product seizures at airports. According to the data, between 2015 and 2016, Ethiopia ranked behind South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Mozambique and Madagascar in terms of recorded trafficking instances associated with Africa (which includes instances where trafficked goods were seized on route to or from the country). However, by 2018–2019, Ethiopia had the highest number of trafficking instances across Africa countries.

Ethiopia also has a notably high rate of missed instances of trafficking, suggesting enforcement is less effective at the country’s airports than at other regional hubs, such as Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Of 55 trafficking instances recorded in the 2018/19 period, 52 shipments of trafficked goods passed through undetected, three were seized before arrival, and no seizures were recorded in Ethiopia itself.6

Counts of airborne wildlife-trafficking instances relating to Africa, 2015–2016 and 2018–2019, by country.

Figure 5 Counts of airborne wildlife-trafficking instances relating to Africa, 2015–2016 and 2018–2019, by country.

NOTE: ‘Trafficking instances’ include incidents of wildlife trafficking where the seizure was made within the country itself, en route to that country, or missed by authorities in that country and seized later on in the journey. The data shows that airborne wildlife trafficking through Ethiopia has risen relative to other countries since 2015, from a total count of 14 incidents in 2015–2016 to 55 in 2018–2019.
SOURCE: C4ADS Air Seizure Database, developed for the USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership and available at

According to the IFAW analysis, elephant ivory is the most commonly trafficked illegal wildlife product, with 419 of 427 passengers arrested in Bole in 2013–2017 being in possession of elephant ivory. Of the arrested transiting passengers, 87% were bound for China, and most were Angolan or Nigerian nationals.

Mengisteab Beyene, the director of Narcotic Drugs Inspection at the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission, confirmed that Bole faces challenges.7 He said the airport lacks scanning technology, is understaffed and has no sniffer dogs, although a sniffer dog is being trained in Germany currently. ‘Addis is a target, and like elsewhere corruption plays a part,’ he said.

The IFAW assessment identified additional weaknesses, including a lack of cooperation between security agencies, delays in reporting cases to the federal police, limited forensic capability, high staff turnover and a lack of training.

The report also speculated that the redevelopment of Bole’s newly expanded Terminal 2, which increased the airport’s capacity from 7 million to 22 million passengers per year when it opened in January 2019, would increase the airport’s attractiveness to traffickers. Accounts of both drugs and wildlife moving through the airport in the time since suggest these concerns may now be realized. The announcement by Ethiopian Airlines in January 2020 of plans to build a new $5 billion mega-airport in Addis Ababa, which is anticipated will outgrow Bole within the next three or four years, may increase this trend further.


  1. Interview conducted by John Wotherspoon, 13 January 2020, Addis Ababa, and shared with the author. 

  2. Interview with John Wotherspoon, 14 January 2020, Addis Ababa. 

  3. The name has been changed to protect her identity. 

  4. Interview conducted by phone, 21 January 2020. 

  5. Charles MacKay, Mekbeb E. Tessema, and Beletew Getachew Kassa, Assessment of Wildlife Trafficking Through Bole International Airport (BIA), report submitted to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, East Africa Office, Nairobi, Kenya, May 2018,

  6. Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species Partnership, ROUTES Dashboard,

  7. Date, place of the interview to be added.