JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Four young gorillas from Cameroon that were smuggled to a Malaysian zoo arrived in South Africa last week where they will remain in captivity, a senior zoo official in Pretoria said Thursday. "The animals are doing extremely well," said Willie Labuschagne, executive director of South Africa's National Zoo in Pretoria. He said they were in quarantine and would be exhibited in the zoo by the end of May. The fate of the "Taiping Four," named after the Malaysian zoo where they appeared after being smuggled out of Cameroon two years ago, infuriated animal rights groups which demanded they be returned to their natural habitat.
Animal welfare groups accused South Africa of breaching international conventions by keeping the Western lowland gorillas, members of a fast-dwindling species known by the scientific name of "gorilla gorilla gorilla." "South Africa has flouted the same international conventions it helped form by allowing the so-called 'Taiping Four' to be moved to a Pretoria zoo instead of returned to Cameroon," said Christina Pretorius, a spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare(IFAW). Wildlife groups said the gorillas had been brought to South Africa discreetly to avoid media coverage and accused the country of reneging on an earlier pledge to help resolve the issue "in the spirit of African unity." "It seems now that making money is more important to them than any African unity and that getting visitor attractions to a zoo is more important than the welfare of the animals," said Ofir Drori, director of the Last Great Apes Organization (LAGA).
Cameroon has long demanded the return of the lowland gorillas, whose population of 10,000 in Cameroon, Central African Republic, the two Congos, Gabon and Nigeria is rapidly declining because of indiscriminate hunting and logging, trading in pets and the deadly Ebola virus. Cameroon, Malaysia and South Africa are all party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which bans the sale or trade of apes caught in the wild, but gorillas are prized as a bushmeat delicacy for city dwellers and a major source of protein for poor villagers.
Pretoria zoo's Labuschagne dismissed the concerns of the welfare groups as emotional, saying a life in captivity was a good opportunity for the animals. "This is not a fantasy world. They romanticize Cameroon as animals jumping up and down the mountains, the rivers, streams and eating bananas. It's not the case. The situation in the wild is pretty bad," he said.
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