CITES Secretary-General calls for prosecutions of those involved in the illegal trade of gorillas

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CITES Secretary-General calls for prosecutions of those involved
in the illegal trade of gorillas

In response to many messages of concern that the Secretariat has received, the Secretary-General of CITES, Willem Wijnstekers, issued the following statement today.

I firmly believe that the fact that a determined and criminal attempt to supply animals illegally taken from the wild was foiled sends a very clear message to those who may wish to trade illicitly in wildlife that CITES is determined that they will not succeed. I trust that prosecutions will take place in Malaysia and Nigeria to reinforce this message. I hope, regardless of their final destination, that the gorillas will enjoy stable, healthy and long lives and that they can act as ambassadors for their species to help graphically illustrate the risks posed to endangered species by illegal trade in wildlife and to encourage governments, relevant organizations and the public to support the conservation of wildlife. Although it is extremely regrettable that this incident ever occurred, I believe that it has provided valuable lessons from which everyone involved in CITES must learn.

Background: Illegally traded gorillas – the ‘Taiping Four’

In early 2002, the CITES Secretariat was alerted to an incident involving four juvenile gorillas that had been transported from Nigeria to Malaysia, via South Africa. Although the export from Nigeria and import to Malaysia was authorized by the CITES Management Authorities of both countries and genuine permits required by the Convention accompanied the shipment, there appeared to be reasonable grounds to suspect that the movement was not in conformity with the provisions of CITES.

The authorizing documents recorded the animals as having been bred in captivity in a zoo in Nigeria. It was said that the animals were part of an exchange programme between the University of Ibadan Zoological Gardens in Nigeria and Taiping Zoo in Malaysia. Information received by the Secretariat from a non-governmental organization (the International Primate Protection League) indicated that the declaration of the gorillas as having been captive-bred might be false. The Secretariat then asked the CITES Management Authorities of Malaysia and Nigeria to investigate this information and advise it of the result of those investigations. South Africa was asked to comment on the circumstances relating to the transit of the gorillas through that country. The Secretariat also independently reviewed information it collected about the matter.

It became clear at an early stage that the animals in question could not have been bred in the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, since that facility has no gorillas capable of producing offspring. The role of an intermediary company, based in Malaysia but seemingly with connections to Nigeria, which apparently facilitated the acquisition of the animals and their movement, was highly suspicious; involving fraudulent actions and payments of money that would not normally be expected in a genuine exchange of specimens between zoological institutions.

The Secretariat encouraged the authorities in Malaysia to seize the animals and this was done.
The Secretariat has devoted considerable time and resources to the review of this incident. It has supplied its own technical expertise and advice to the authorities in Malaysia, Nigeria and South Africa. This included briefing a Commission of Inquiry established by the President of Nigeria and personal communication between the Secretary-General of CITES and government officials in Malaysia and Nigeria, to ministerial level. It passed to the relevant Parties advice and suggestions received from non-governmental organizations, individuals with expertise in primates, and also the general public (which showed considerable interest in the case). The Secretariat is grateful to these organizations and persons for responding to requests for information or for providing it voluntarily.

It understands that the Commission of Inquiry in Nigeria has confirmed the Secretariat’s suspicions that corrupt actions by officials may have played a part in the export of the animals from that country. It understands that South Africa has amended the way in which its CITES Management Authority will monitor shipments in transit. The Secretariat also understands that investigations continue in Malaysia to identify those persons who acted improperly or criminally there.

The Secretariat’s study of this case has left it in no doubt that there was considerable criminality involved in Malaysia and Nigeria that led to the illegal movement of the gorillas. It believes much work remains to be done to bring the culprits to justice. The Secretariat, and in particular the Secretary-General, has communicated frankly with the Governments of Malaysia and Nigeria to express concerns regarding a number of aspects of the case.

Aside from bringing offenders to justice, the remaining issue was to identify a long-term home for the gorillas that were confiscated in Malaysia. Here too, the Secretariat has extensively communicated with government officials in Malaysia. It passed on an offer by the National Zoo of South Africa and the Limbe Wildlife Sanctuary in Cameroon to house the animals. In doing so, it provided Malaysia with information from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and from other non-governmental organizations and individuals with an interest in primate conservation and welfare. It recommended that DNA profiling be used to help determine the country of origin of the gorillas. It reminded Malaysia that the Conference of the Parties to CITES has adopted guidance relating to the disposal of confiscated live animals (see Resolution Conf. 10.7). The Secretariat made clear that it would not be appropriate for anyone involved in this illicit trade, now or in the future, to benefit from it.

There are firm views held by organizations and individuals regarding what would be the most suitable long-term home for the gorillas and many of these views are in direct conflict with each other. The Secretariat can, of course, not decide on this important aspect and has not entered the debate on this aspect of the case. It is conscious that the text of the Convention and the relevant Resolution make plain that the decision rests with the State of confiscation, i.e. Malaysia.

The Secretariat understands that Malaysia has decided that the animals should be transferred to the National Zoo of South Africa. The Secretariat neither endorses nor questions this decision; it does, however, note that it complies with the guidance adopted by the Conference of the Parties.