October 17, 2005

Cameroon bids to win back apes from S.Africa zoo

By Tansa Musa

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Cameroon is launching a bid to
negotiate the return of four endangered guerrillas whose fate
has infuriated wildlife protection groups since the animals
were smuggled via Malaysia to a South African zoo.

A Cameroon government delegation was traveling from the
Central African country to South Africa on Monday to try to win
the release of the young Western Lowland gorillas, dubbed the
"Taipeng Four" and smuggled out three years ago.

The gorillas were smuggled via Nigeria to Malaysia's
Taipeng Zoo in July 2002, then shipped to South Africa's
Pretoria National Zoological Gardens two years later.

Cameroon says the move violated the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

"As a member of CITES, South Africa is required to ensure
that illegally confiscated animals are returned to their
country of origin," Mary Fosi, senior adviser to Cameroon's
Environment Ministry, told Reuters at the weekend.

"South Africa feels the Cameroon government has never
really requested the repatriation of the gorillas officially,"
she said.

"This is why a delegation is traveling to South Africa to
stress that these gorillas belong to Cameroon and they need to
come back to their natural habitat."

The great grey-brown apes, which weigh up to 275 kg (600
lb), live deep within Central Africa's tropical rainforests.

The lowland gorilla's intelligence and physical structure
is closer to man than any other primate except chimpanzees. Man
is its only predator, with hunters tracking it for bushmeat and
timber companies destroying its natural habitat.

South Africa had last month proposed keeping the "Taipeng
Four" in exchange for wildlife conservation and research
cooperation, Fosi said.

But Cameroon will insist the four apes return as part of
government efforts to boost tourism. Its delegation includes
diplomats and officials from three ministries and has the
backing of several environmental organizations.

The primate is classified as endangered by the World
Conservation Union (IUCN). It is estimated that 100,000 remain
in the wild in Central Africa.

Fosi expressed confidence South Africa would cooperate and
denied Pretoria's claims that Cameroon lacked the required
infrastructure to host the animals.

"We have the infrastructure at the Limbe Wildlife Center
which is very decent ... the capacity has been upgraded to
receive the gorillas," she said.