Friday, August 31, 2007

DNA Used To Trace Origin Of Taiping Four

It has taken years for primatologists and animal-rights organizations to piece together the story of the Taiping Four gorillas.

Analysis of their DNA shows they are related to gorillas in Cameroon. It's likely that their mothers were shot by poachers and they were smuggled across the border and sold to a zoo in Ibadan in northern Nigeria. Then they were shipped to the zoo in Taiping, Malaysia, in 2001, as part of an "exchange" of zoo animals, although it was never clear what the Taiping zoo was meant to be sending to Ibadan.

In fact, according to documents unearthed by the International Primate Protection League, the gorillas were sold from Ibadan by a Nigerian trader working with Nigerians in Malaysia. The Malaysian government allowed the import of the gorillas, as captive-bred animals but - as the IPPL points out - it should have taken them just two minutes to figure out that there is no gorilla-breeding program in Nigeria and the gorillas had to have been wild, and thus their import was a violation of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

The IPPL alerted the Malaysian government, which eventually seized the gorillas. But what to do with them?

Somehow, apparently as a result of a close friendship between a CITES official and the then-director of South Africa's National Zoological Gardens, they wound up in Pretoria. (South Africa was already complicit, because the gorillas were flown to Malaysia through Johannesburg with nary a raised eyebrow, although again, the export of live gorillas from Nigeria was clearly illegal.)

And there the gorillas have sat since 2004, while the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa and Malaysia argue about where they should go, and when. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has been poised to ship them to a primate centre in Cameroon for years, and even got so far as to book flights and have crates made, but bureaucratic pettiness has kept the Taiping Four sitting in Pretoria.

Nigeria was the only country to take action about this smuggling case; complicit officials in Ibadan were fired and a commission of inquiry held to map out the smuggling route. The fund hopes the gorillas will finally leave Pretoria next month.

Story here.

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