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Apes Are Endangered, Exotic--and For Sale

Environment: Nigeria is one of the world's most flagrant illegal markets for Africa's primates and other threatened species.


CALABAR, Nigeria — Milk bottles at the ready, Irene Okon Edem cradles two wide-eyed orphans in her arms while a third hangs precociously on her neck.

"Stop it," the 23-year-old Nigerian gently scolds one of them, named Buster, who then bites his lip and tugs her hair mischievously.

Buster is a chimpanzee, delivered in April to Edem and fellow workers at the Drill Ranch, a private American-run primate sanctuary in Nigeria, which conservationists say is one of the world's most flagrant illegal markets for Africa's endangered apes.

A woman had bought Buster out of pity, rescuing the baby chimp from smugglers. Other primates have turned up at the Drill Ranch in the eastern Nigeria city of Calabar with cigarette burns or shotgun wounds.

Looking for an illegal, exotic pet? Go no farther than the Musa Yar A'Adua Center, a marble memorial in the capital to honor a past junta figure.

Animal traders set up shop in a scrubby field across the street. Affluent customers choose among endangered apes and other animals captured in the wild, seeking trophies for public and private zoos worldwide.

Young men watch over dirty cages and nylon mesh bags filled with some of the world's most threatened species -- fish eagles, for instance, or gray parrots, prized as good talkers.

Got any apes? A trader named Habib Sani pulls an emaciated baby chimpanzee out of a perforated plastic sack. The price: 60,000 naira, or about $500.

Unaccustomed to bright sunlight, the baby chimp shields its eyes with tiny hands.

Even gorillas, which number just 100 in a forest fringe on Nigeria's eastern border, can be ordered for the right price, whispers Sani.

In Nigeria, a West African nation of 120 million, decades of intensive hunting have denuded forests and savannas of wildlife. But its cities remain marketplaces for exotic species, alive or dead, from nearby Cameroon, Chad, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Central African Republic. Conservationists say commercial trapping in those countries is an offshoot of the more traditional, and more indiscriminate, trade in hunted meat.

At the Lekki tourist market in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, an American businessman gazes at Sahara Desert foxes, cranes and parrots pawing and scratching at their plywood cages. "An Old McDonald's farm," he mutters.

Live apes and rare birds are sometimes seen on sale just outside Nigeria's international airports.

Great apes, humans' closest animal relatives, once ranged from Senegal on Africa's western tip to Tanzania in the east.

They survive today only in isolated pockets of dwindling forests -- perhaps just 100,000 chimpanzees and far fewer gorillas, scientists estimate.

Hunting or trapping great apes is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a global treaty that Nigeria has signed.

But the accord hasn't stopped trafficking networks from capturing chimpanzees, bonobos and their giant cousins, African gorillas, and smuggling them through borders and airports to zoos and private collectors overseas.

Most takers are in Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe, says Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the Summerville, S.C.-based International Primate Protection League.

McGreal showed Associated Press a letter from a Nigerian firm offering to sell four baby gorillas for $400,000 each to a private Middle Eastern zoo. The league whited out the zoo's name for legal reasons.

The profits from smuggling are huge. A chimp sold for $10 in an African village would fetch $20,000 in Moscow or Dubai. Nigeria is a key transit point, conservationists say, because officials here often plead ignorance of bans or deliberately overlook violations.

"We often have to show police and officials photocopies of laws," says Muhtari Aminu-Kanu, executive director of the Nigeria Conservation Foundation. "Once they have seen that, they are usually helpful."

The plight of Africa's primates gained prominence in September when a baby gorilla and baby chimpanzee arrived at Cairo's airport on a flight from Nigeria without proper export and import documents.

Egyptian veterinarians drowned them in a vat of chemicals, saying they feared they were carrying diseases.

In January, conservationists were alerted when four baby gorillas from Nigeria turned up at Malaysia's Taiping Zoo.

The government-funded zoo denied any impropriety, saying it was told the apes were bred in captivity in Nigeria and therefore could be legally traded.

Conservationists say there is no known breeding program in all of Africa from which gorillas could have come.

Export documents seen by AP list the gorillas as having been bred at Nigeria's University of Ibadan Zoological Gardens, 75 miles north of Lagos. Employees there say they have no breeding program. The only gorilla on display is a 37-year-old female long past breeding age.

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