“Well-meaning” wildlife traffic? CITES weighs Taiping gorilla case
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2002:
TAIPING, Malaysia; SANTIAGO, Chile–Few points on earth
are farther apart, with more open sea and sky between them, than
Taiping, Malaysia, home of the struggling Taiping Zoo, and
Santiago, Chile, the host city for the 12th Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species Conference of the Parties,
called CITES-COP 2002 for short.
Yet the Taiping Zoo and CITES-COP 2002 had an awkward issue
to deal with in mid-November, having to do with the zoo illegally
buying baby gorillas in the name of conservation. The facts were
less in dispute than the intentions behind the January 2002
transaction–and the closest resemblance to common ground between the
positions of Taiping and the CITES Secretariat, across 6,000 miles
of Pacific Ocean, might have been the rolling deck of a Japanese
The people involved on either side of the Taiping Zoo/CITES
controversy over the origins and fate of four recently arrived baby
gorillas all consider themselves animal-loving scientists. Taiping
state science, environment, health and technology committee chair
Ho Chang Wong professes bewilderment at the demands of primatologist
Jane Goodall, among others, who on October 30 told Malaysian
national science, technology, and environment minister Sari Law
Hieng Ding that the four young gorillas should immediately be removed
from the Taiping Zoo, and should be sent instead to a sanctuary in
“I believe the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon would be a
suitable home for these four gorillas,” Goodall said, pointing out
that Limbe already has eight gorillas in residence.
“No party should be allowed to profit either directly or
indirectly from the gorillas,” Goodall continued. Goodall further
asked Sari Law Hieng Ding to prosecute whoever was responsible for
bringing the gorillas to Malaysia.
Goodall amplified the previously expressed positions of CITES
Secretariat senior enforcement officer John Sellar, the Great Ape
Project, and International Primate Protection League founder Shirley
McGreal, who first revealed that the four gorillas the Taiping Zoo
bought from the Ibadan Zoo in Nigeria were not captive-born–and
could not have been, since the Ibadan Zoo had only one adult gorilla.
Taiping Zoo director Kevin Lazarus had represented the young
gorillas as having been obtained through a species exchange program,
in trade for Malayan tigers and sun bears.
“It is learnt,” Malaysia Star reporters Raslan Baharom and
Hilary Chiew wrote on October 12, “that the Taiping Municipal
Council paid [the equivalent of $65,000 U.S.] to a Penang-based
company, which has since ceased operations, to bring in the
“When interviewed by Associated Press,” a Great Ape Project
case summary said, “workers at the Ibadan Zoo readily admitted that
the baby gorillas were caught in the forests of Cameroon,” probably
by shooting their mothers plus any other adult family members who
“We plan to breed the gorillas, not be cruel to them,”
responded Ho Chang Wong to the Malaysia Star, seeming shocked to
find himself viewed–at least by animal advocates–as no better than
poachers and commercial traffickers.
The Taiping Zoo built its most ambitious habitat yet to house
the infant gorillas. Noting the ongoing destruction of wild gorillas
and gorilla habitat by rainforest loggers, genocidal warfare, and
bushmeat hunters, and believing a climate comfortable for orangutans
might be comfortable for gorillas as well, Ho Chang Wong and the
other Taiping officials responisble for the city zoo argue that their
only aim all along was to help save a rare and fascinating
species–and help save the zoo, too, which they acknowledge is in
need of animals with drawing power, to help raise the revenue
required to achieve world-class zoo standards.
Acknowledging that the Taiping Zoo imported the gorillas from
Nigeria with bogus papers, which Taiping Municipal Council president
Jamalludin Amini Ahmad continued to deny, and seeking a satisfactory
compromise, Sari Law Hieng Ding suggested on October 9 that the baby
gorillas might be sent to the Pretoria Zoo in South Africa on an
open-ended breeding loan, allowing the Taiping Zoo to import some of
That might save face for all parties, but would not actually
serve the needs of the Taiping Zoo, and might not do much of
substance for the gorillas either, as life behind bars in Pretoria
might differ little from life right where they are.
Despite repeated hints and promises during the next five
weeks, the gorillas still had not gone anywhere when CITES-COP 2002
“Malaysia may try to be virtuous until after the CITES
conference is over,” McGreal told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “and then find a
way to keep the gorillas.”
Jamalludin Amini Ahmad confirmed to Malaysia Star reporters
Baharom and Chiew that the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and
National Parks “is working hard to ensure that the animals are not
But giving up the gorillas in exchange for eventually
obtaining some of their offspring seemed to be the most often
anticipated outcome of ongoing discussions among the CITES
Secretariat, conservation organizations, and zoo officials.
Reported the Malaysia Star, “Dionysius Sharma, head of the
Malaysian animal conservation unit for the World Wildlife Fund,
feels there would be no problem with gorilla offspring coming to
Malaysia, since they would be captive-born.”
However, “Asked if having these rare gorillas would be a
major commercial asset for the Taiping Zoo,” the Star continued,
“Sharma said they would not be, ‘since most people cannot tell the
difference between gorillas and monkeys. To most people, monkeys
While discussion about the future of the gorillas dragged on,
some primatologists warned that gorillas have very low resistance to
the relatively common Asian soil pathogen pseudomonas psuedomallei.
The Singapore Zoo lost four gorillas to pseudomonas psuedomallei in
1983, and lost another to it in 1993. A sixth Singapore Zoo gorilla
became infected, but was flown to the Rotterdam Zoo in the
Netherlands for emergency care and survived.
Like the illicit gorilla-buyers of Taiping, Japanese
national director of fisheries research and environmental protection
Masayuki Komatsu thinks of himself as a man of science, reason, and
practical diplomacy –and seems to think he knows when to break the
rules, or is above having to observe rules.
On November 8, the very day that Japan asked CITES-COP to
remove Bryde and minke whales from the list of internationally
protected species, the five-vessel Japanese whaling fleet left the
port of Shimonoseki to kill a self-assigned “research” quota of 400
minke whales, within the nominally protected Southern Oceans Whale
The sanctuary was designated by a 1994 vote of the
International Whaling Committee, which like CITES is a regulatory
body created by the United Nations, and like most U.N. regulatory
conventions is enforced chiefly by the goodwill of the members.
Japan has conducted so-called “research whaling” with impunity within
the Southern Oceans Whale Sanctuary every year since it was formally
established, but the gesture of defiance this year may have been
Before the day was over, Japan had lost the first two
high-profile votes of CITES-COP 2002. The counts were 54-41 against
downlisting minke whales and 63-43 against downlisting Bryde whales.
Each downlisting proposal would have required the support of
a two-thirds majority of the votes cast in order to pass.
“It’s an extremely sad day, because the delegates have not
recognized that cultural diversity is just as important as
biodiversity,” Japanese delegation member Glenn Hema told news
media. “Japan doesn’t tell other cultures what to do with their
beef,” Hema insisted– evidently forgetting the many trade wars
fought at the Global Agreement on Trade and Tariffs and World Trade
Organization levels over Japanese beef industry protectionism.
“Japan simply does not want to have their culture put down,”
agreed Japanese Whaling Association consultant Alan Mcnow to Graham
Gori of Associated Press.
Responded Humane Society of the U.S. international legal
counsel Kitty Block, “In Japan’s case, whaling is certainly
cultural, but it is not done for subsistence. They are looking to
open up commercial whaling.”
Yet Japanese efforts to roll back global whale protection
appear to be less about whales, despite the potential profits to be
made from resuming commercial whaling, than about trying to
forestall precedents for international regulation of fisheries.
Observed World Wildlife Fund species programs director Sue
Lieberman, “Japan wanted support, not only for its whale proposals,
but also to try to block all proposals havng to do with fish,
including sea horses.”
Obliged to go to press three days before the decisions were
made about ivory, in order to attend the International Companion
Animal Welfare Conference in Prague, captival of the Czech Republic,
ANIMAL PEOPLE could share with readers only the relatively limited
outcomes of the first week of the two-week CITES-COP meeting. Few of
the preliminary votes were the last word on any of the topics.
But Japan, recruiting support from Canada, Cuba, and
Russia, won a quiet but important November 7 vote against adding
Black Sea bottlenose dolphins to CITES Appendix I, the list of
species that are considered endangered and are therefore excluded
from all international commerce. Threatened species, allowed in
commerce with trade restrictions, are listed on Appendix II.
Georgia, a former part of the Soviet Union, bordering on the Black
Sea, proposed that Black Sea bottlenose dolphins should be
protected, and received U.S. support. Needing 48 votes to pass,
the proposal failed by getting just 40, with 31 “no” votes and 39
The threat to Canada, Cuba, and Russia if Black Seas
bottlenose dolphins are put on Appendix I is that other bottlenose
dolphins might also be listed as lookalike species. That in turn
might cut into their profits as the nations most involved in
supplying marine mammals to exhibition and swim-with-dolphins
Green sea turtles won a round on November 8, however, when
a British proposal to allow the Cayman Islands to sell products from
hatchery-reared green sea turtle specimens drew only 38 votes, with
24 negatives and 48 abstentions.
Awaiting ivory vote
The much anticipated CITES-COP 2002 votes on elephant ivory
trafficking were scheduled for the second half of the conference to
avoid walkouts and deadlocks during the first half.
How the ivory battle would come out was anyone’s guess.
Twenty-two African nations agreed at a regional caucus just before
CITES-COP 2002 convened to support an amendment to the 1989 global
ban on ivory trafficking which would allow Botswana, Namibia, South
Africa, and Zimbabwe to sell their accumulated ivory stockpiles,
and would also allow them to resume selling some ivory on a regular
basis. All four nations claim to have large and growing elephant
populations, and to have poaching under control, though the
Zimbabwean numbers seem especially suspect in view of the invasions
of wildlife habitat in recent years by mobs of armed and economically
desperate “war veterans.”
Leading the opposition to the proposals issued by Botwana,
Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe are India, Kenya, China, and
India, Kenya, and China are each battling poachers to
retain fractions of the wild elephant populations that they had just
a few decades ago. Like the U.S., each is also worried about the
involvement of al Qaida and other Islamic fundamentalist militias in
the clandestine ivory traffic. The elephants of Tsavo National Park
in Kenya, in particular, have been hard hit over the years by
Somali poaching gangs with direct links to the al Qaida network.
India and China are concerned that allowing any legal commerce in
ivory at all could encourage insurgents–such as the al Qaida
affiliates believed to be operating in Jammu-and-Kashmir–to
exterminate wild elephants to buy arms.
U.S. President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and
Secretary of State Colin Powell, trophy hunters all and longtime
members of Safari Club International, were until September 11, 2001
seen as likely to favor ivory commerce proposals that might encourage
trophy hunting as a mechanism of conservation funding.
Post-September 11, their priorities seem to have shifted,
at least for this CITES-COP session.
British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Peter Greste
reported on November 10 that, “National delegations and
non-governmental organisations complain that this year’s CITES-COP
meeting is among the most politicised ever. With allegations of
corruption, bribery, espionage and threats,”