IBADAN, Nigeria -- Wildlife groups on Saturday demanded the return of four baby gorillas believed to have been illegally captured and flown to a leading Malaysian zoo. Conservationists called it one of the most troubling cases yet in an international smuggling trade threatening Africa's great apes with extinction.
Malaysia's government-funded Taiping Zoo denies wrongdoing, saying the apes were bred in captivity in Nigeria and therefore liable to trade under world wildlife protection accords.
Workers at a Nigeria zoo, however, told The Associated Press this week that the four infant gorillas passed through their zoo after being caught wild in the forests of Cameroon.
Conservationists also independently challenge the Malaysia zoo's account of the four apes' origins -- arguing, in part, that there are no known breeding program for gorillas anywhere in Africa from which the animals could have been taken.
"This is clearly a case of smuggling ... the only real question is who is responsible," charged Muhtari Aminu-Kano, executive director of the Nigeria Conservation Foundation, an affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund.
Wildlife experts say the case appears to highlight a growing trafficking market.
Gorillas, chimpanzees and drills -- a baboon-sized animal that is Africa's most endangered primate -- have also been intercepted in the 1990s on their way from Nigeria to Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand.
Selling or trading apes caught in the wild is banned under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, or CITES, which permits only those born in captivity to be exchanged for noncommercial purposes. Both Malaysia and Nigeria are signatories.
The latest case involves four young gorillas -- listed as between 18 and 48 months -- that turned up at Taiping Zoo in January.
Authorities at the Taiping zoo, 155 miles north of Kuala Lumpur, have refused repeated requests for on-the-record comment about the animals' origins.
Speaking only on condition they not be identified, Taiping Zoo officials say they received the infant gorillas as part of a trade with a Nigerian zoo. They have repeatedly refused to identify the Nigerian zoo.
"Exchanges of animals between zoos are fairly normal," one official at the Taiping Zoo said last week.
"We have done nothing wrong ... all the documentation is in order and we have no reason to suspect any foul play," the official said.
The export documents, viewed by The Associated Press, list the gorillas as having been bred at Nigeria's University of Ibadan Zoological Gardens.
Ibadan Zoo officials say they have no such breeding program, however. The only gorilla currently at the zoo is a 37-year-old female long past breeding age.
Olalekan Akanji, a zookeeper at the University of Ibadan Zoological Gardens about 70 miles north of Lagos, said the four gorillas "came from the jungle in Cameroon" and spent several months at the zoo before being flown to Malaysia in January.
Akanji said he bottle-fed the young apes milk and sugar water, and even taught one to ride a tricycle.
"If anyone else wants more gorillas, we can get some more," Akanji volunteered in front of several primate cages. "But they are very expensive."
Asked if the zoo ever had other baby gorillas intended for trade, he said "Yes, there have been many. But a lot of them died."
Another zoo employee, guide Friday Ndubisi Onwuka, also said the four gorillas came from "the forest" and spent time in Ibadan before flying to Malaysia.
Taiping Zoo had publicly sought this particular species of gorilla over the Internet for more than a year.
The gorillas have yet to be put on public display in Malaysia. Zoo authorities say they are under quarantine.
Wildlife groups say there are enough obvious questions marks about the animals' origins to mean that Nigeria and Malaysia should never have allowed their export.
"They could not legitimately have been captive-bred," said Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the Summerville, S.C.-based International Primate Protection League.
Allowing the Malaysian zoo to keep the gorillas would set a "disturbing precedent" and touch off a flood of similar shipments further threatening the already endangered primates, McGreal said.
Although the exact scope of the illicit trade of great apes is unknown, a growing number have been intercepted on their way from Nigeria to the Middle East, Asia and eastern Europe where they can fetch tens -- or even hundreds -- of thousands of dollars each from private zoos and collectors, Nigerian and U.S. conservationists say.
"We fear the cases that have come to light are just be the tip of the iceberg," McGreal said.
The Protection League showed The AP a letter from Nigerian firm Odukoya & Associates offering four baby gorillas for sale to a private Middle Eastern zoo for $400,000 each.
There is no indication the gorillas were the same ones sent to Malaysia.
Great apes once ranged from Senegal on Africa's western tip to Tanzania in the east, but today survive only in isolated pockets of dwindling forests. Scientists estimate that perhaps just 100,000 chimpanzees and far fewer gorillas remain today in the wild.
Primate traders often buy the surviving babies of animals killed by local bushmeat hunters for food or profit, said John Oates, a British-born primatologist living in Manhattan and Nigeria.
A chimpanzee selling for $10 in the village commands perhaps $500 in Abuja, and $20,000 in Moscow or Dubai. Nigeria, a nation of 120 million people with only 100 wild gorillas left, is a frequent transit point for animals from neighboring countries, said Aminu-Kano.
Other pressures facing apes -- humans' closest animal relatives -- include commercial logging and civil wars.
On the Net:
Convention on Trade of Endangered Species, http://www.cites.org
United Nations Environment Program Great Apes Survival Project, http://www.unep.org/grasp
Nigeria Conservation Foundation, http://www.ncfenvironment.org
AP Photos NY192-194