Malaysia said Monday it was working with South Africa to return four smuggled young gorillas to Cameroon before the end of this year, following delays that have kept the animals in Pretoria in safekeeping since 2004.
The lowland gorillas - one male and three females captured by poachers in the wild - were smuggled through South Africa to Malaysia's Taiping Zoo in 2002.
After learning the shipment was illegal, the Malaysian government sent them back to South Africa where they were quarantined at Pretoria Zoo in April 2004.
Wildlife activists have said Malaysia's approval is needed for South Africa to send the apes, now around seven years old, to the Limbe Wildlife Center in Cameroon because the Southeast Asian nation has ownership of the animals until they are returned to Cameroon.
Aziyah Mohamed, the Malaysian Natural Resources and Environment Ministry's forestry division undersecretary, said Malaysia and South Africa were cooperating to resolve the issue.
"We're working on it," Aziyah said. "We're looking at the issue very closely."
Aziyah declined to say why it was taking so long to move the gorillas, but stressed that ministry officials "don't see any obstacles" to sending them to Cameroon's wildlife center, which has a record of successfully caring for orphaned gorillas.
Asked if they could return to Cameroon before the year's end, Aziyah said, "We should think so."
After the gorillas were sent to Pretoria, government officials from South Africa and Cameroon held protracted talks on the future of the animals, nicknamed the "Taiping Four."
There had been speculation that South Africa would try to negotiate to keep the apes in Pretoria in exchange for environmental conservation assistance and research in Cameroon.
The South Africa-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW, has said the gorillas were scheduled to leave for Cameroon last December, but the move was delayed because the South African government said it did not have Malaysia's consent.
"We do remain positive that it is only bureaucracy that is slowing down this process and nothing more sinister than that," the IFAW said in a March 29 statement. "Should the OK come in the next few weeks, then we will be working toward returning them in October 2007."
Gorillas are listed as at risk of extinction under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and it is unlawful to kill, capture or export them. According to estimates, as few as 110,000 gorillas remain in the wild in Central Africa, the IFAW said last year.