The "Taiping Four" are young gorillas who had the misfortune to be caught up in the international live animal trade. They are now sitting behind the scenes at Taiping Zoo, Malaysia, awaiting a decision on their fate. Captured as babies in the rain forests of Cameroon, they were delivered by smugglers to Ibadan Zoo in Nigeria, which was running an international baby gorilla trafficking scam-providing the wild-caught babies with certificates that they were born at Ibadan Zoo.
Ibadan Zoo itself owned only one gorilla, an elderly female. Somehow she produced strings of babies-or so officials of Ibadan Zoo would have us believe!
Taiping Zoo in Malaysia was anxious to obtain gorillas. However, gorillas are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and all commercial trade is strictly prohibited.
The International Primate Protection League (IPPL) first learned about these gorillas in March 2002. A visitor to Headquarters showed us photographs of several baby gorillas, which he claimed had just arrived at Taiping Zoo. IPPL immediately sent an investigator to Malaysia. She verified that the four baby gorillas had arrived, but the zoo director would not let her see them. A keeper told her that he had traveled to Nigeria to help arrange the deal, but was forced to leave Nigeria empty-handed because the gorillas had not been delivered to Ibadan Zoo from Cameroon.
A later investigation showed that six gorilla babies had reached Ibadan earlier, but that all had died. This is not surprising. Baby gorillas are caught by the shooting of mother gorillas carrying babies The babies cling to their dead mothers and are easy to retrieve. Baby gorillas have a very low survival rate. Most die of stress-related ailments.
IPPL was able to obtain copies of many crucial documents related to the shipment. These included a CITES export permit for five "captive-born" gorillas (it seems that one baby scheduled for export died). A South African Airways air waybill showed that the airline had carried the animals from Lagos to Johannesburg, and on to Asia.
IPPL immediately started a protest campaign. Nigeria and Malaysian authorities were deluged with letters and postcards demanding an investigation. The Nigerian and Malaysian press covered the case, as did the Associated Press, which confirmed that the gorillas originated in Cameroon and were NOT born at Ibadan Zoo. Malaysian authorities finally decided to confiscate the gorillas and send them to Pretoria Zoo in South Africa. The decision was questionable. After all, South Africa was involved in the original shipment and is not a gorilla habitat country. Further, there is an excellent sanctuary at Limbe in Cameroon, which takes care of 12 rescued gorillas.
During the CITES conference held in Santiago, Chile, in November 2002, Dr. Imeh Okopido, Nigeria's Minister of State for the Environment, asked for details of the shipment which I provided. Outraged, he held a press conference at which he denounced everyone involved in the shipment. He asked, "Are we to believe that the gorillas were born by immaculate conception?" During the CITES conference Minister Okopido and the head of the Cameroon delegation co-signed a letter calling for the gorillas to be sent to an African rescue center.
Minister Okopido also announced that he was going to ask President Obasanjo of Nigeria to establish a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate the "Taiping Four" case and other smuggling incidents involving Nigeria. The Commission did a thorough job identifying participants, including the animal dealer Tunde Oduyoya whose 1999 fax to the world's zoos offering baby gorillas for sale had caused an international scandal; Dr. Dora Akinboye, the former director of Ibadan Zoo; Mathew Akusu, the veterinarian who signed the gorillas' health certificates; and several government officials including Engineer Usman who signed the export certificates. It called for all of them to be prosecuted for their crimes.
Meanwhile the gorillas remain at Taiping despite many requests for them to be sent to a sanctuary in Cameroon. On 27 August 2003, Mr Tanyi Myianbor, Cameroon's Minister of the Environment, became exasperated at the delays and filed an official request for the gorillas to be sent to Cameroon. Their fate is still not resolved.
YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
- Nigeria should prosecute those identified as wildlife criminals by the Nigerian Administrative Panel of Inquiry on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. Write: Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria, Federal Secretariat, Shehu Shagari Way, Abuja, Nigeria.
- Malaysia should abandon plans to send the gorillas to Pretoria Zoo in South Africa, and be urged instead to release them to a rehabilitation center in Cameroon. Write: Dato' Seri Law Hieng Ding, Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, Aras 1-7, Blok C5, Parcel C Pusat Pentadbiran Persekutuan 620502, Putrajaya, Malaysia.