Lab demand threatens Asian urban monkeys
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2004:
“For lab animals who have died for the health of humans,”
reads the inscription on the front of a newly installed monument in
front of the Wuhan University animal research center, in Hubai
On the back it reads, “In special memory of the 38 rhesus
macaques whose lives were devoted to SARS research.”
Both inscriptions were authored by vaccine researcher Sun
Lihua, the Xinhua News Agency reported in early October 2004.
Researchers rarely welcome such public reminders that their
work causes animals to suffer and die.
In 1903, for example, British National Anti-Vivisection
Society president Stephen Coleridge had a fountain built in the
Battersea district of London to mark the life and death of a dog who
had been vivisected at nearby University College. Seven years of
frequent street fighting followed between medical students trying to
smash the fountain and local working class youths who defended it.
The Brown Dog Riots, as the conflicts are remembered, ended
after the city council had the fountain removed in 1910, but
modern-day University College students and faculty objected when a
replica fountain was installed at Battersea Park in 1985.
Opposition to animal research tends to be quiet in China.
Protests of any kind have long been repressed, and there is no
visible antivivisection movement.
On the other hand, in China even more than in most nations,
public art is understood to have a political context–even if the
context is ambiguous.
Are Sun Lihua and colleagues sincerely mourning the macaques
and other lab animals? Is self-criticism or doubt implied?
Or is the monument a preemptive strike against opposition
which does not yet exist, meant to defend animal research as “cast
in stone”? Is the monument in effect a war memorial, intended to
inspire students toward future sacrifice by commemorating the
sacrifices of the past?
The ambiguity of the meaning of the monument reflects broader
ambiguity toward monkeys throughout southern Asia. Are they
wildlife, to be protected? Pests, to be exterminated? Or a
valuable biotech commodity?
Two weeks before the Wuhan University memorial dedication,
New Scientist reported that an audit of 3,000 published papers
conducted by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden found that
4,411 studies done in 2001 used more than 41,000 nonhuman primates,
believed to be about 20% of the total number of nonhuman primates
involved in biomedical research at any given time.
Old World monkeys were used in 65% of the projects, New
World monkeys in 15%, and great apes in 9%.
The Uppsala University team suggested that far more monkeys
would be used in experimentation if they were available.
Publication of the Uppsala findings came amid a rash of
missing monkey cases involving facilities all over Europe.
In April 2004, for example, the Serbian Statistics Bureau
disclosed that 600 of about 1,000 monkeys imported from Tanzania in
2002 had disappeared without a trace. Four hundred moneys were
received by the Torlak Institute, a vaccine manufacturer.
Between May and mid-September 2004, 38 monkeys of at least
five species were stolen in five separate incidents at three British
zoos and one private collection. Investigators suspect the monkeys
were taken to the European mainland to become breeding stock.
As Asia becomes global competitive in the booming biotech
industry, laboratory demand for monkeys has never been stronger.
Breeders in China, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia,
and Singapore are selling all they can produce, while biotech
leaders are actively encouraging other nations to get into the
Since 2001, for instance, a breeding project in Nepal set
up by the Nepal Natural History Society and the Washington National
Primate Center has begun supplying rhesus macaques to labs. The
Russian Academy of Sciences joined the project in 2002.
The Times of India disclosed on June 24, 2004 that the U.S.
National Institutes of Health is developing a similar project at
Sasunavghar, Vasai, India.
Only captive-bred monkeys may be imported into the U.S. for
lab use, under regulations meant to consrve wild populations and
avoid bringing unknown diseases from the wild into labs, but passing
off wild-caught monkeys as captive-bred is an old trick.
Even if some misrepresented shipments are intercepted, most
are reputedly not.
…and not wanted
Urban monkey populations meanwhile have never been larger,
finding urban habitat ever more congenial as a substitute for forests
that have been fragmented or logged out of existence as cities sprawl
Urban monkeys are nothing new. Temples throughout Asia have
for centuries often sheltered wild monkey colonies, especially
temples built in honor of the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman. Fenced
temple grounds are congenial to monkeys because they offer trees amid
the urban landscape, plus abundant food offerings to plunder, and
most have been traditionally closed to dogs.
Temple monkeys are still highly popular. The Lop Buri Zoo,
70 miles north of Bangkok, in December 2003 opened a special
hospital just to serve the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 monkeys who
inhabit the nearby Phra Karn Shrine. The hospital was reportedly
built with small donations collected by the zoo and the Wild Animal
Rescue Foundation of Thailand from concerned visitors.
Away from protected temple grounds, street dogs until
recently repelled most monkey incursions. Now, as the once teeming
southeastern and subcontinental Asian street dog populations are
reduced through the combination of sterilization and increasing
vulnerability to traffic, monkeys are taking over the vacated
habitat–much as raccoons and feral cats took over the open niches in
the U.S. when allowing pet dogs to run free passed from vogue in the
1970s and 1980s.
As occurred in the U.S., climbing animals are proving much
better suited than street dogs to surviving around cars. Monkeys are
especially adept at crossing busy streets without descending to the
pavement. That skill by itself confers an immediate advantage.
Just as U.S. officials largely have yet to recognize that
removing one kind of nuisance animal from a habitat niche only
ensures that another will move in, most Asian civic authorities have
yet to acknowledge the politically problematic reality that they can
only control the nuisance animals they deal with by better
controlling their food supply.
Only improved urban sanitation can permanently reduce the
street animal population, by eliminating open habitat niches for
street animals. Until then, their choices are not really between
dogs and no dogs, monkeys and no monkeys, or rats and no rats.
Rather, the options are among balances favoring more of one common
refuse-eating animal over another.
Recently the balance has increasingly often tipped toward
monkeys. Whether or not there are more monkeys living in Asia than
several decades ago, there are certainly more monkeys living in
proximity to humans. The monkeys have already adapted to the human
environment. Now humans struggle to adapt to the burgeoning monkey
Primatologist Govindasamy Agoramoorthy is a veteran of the
monkey wars in both India, his homeland, and Taiwan, where he is
now a professor at the Tajen Institute of Technology. Agoramoorthy
is currently contesting a plan advanced by the Kaohsiung City
government to capture and cull purportedly overpopulated Formosan
“We believe, based on our scientific work, that there is no
need for it,” Agoramoorthy told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “During our last
meeting with the city mayor’s office, they promised us to look into
the matter more carefully. So we are watching their moves.
Scientists from Britain, still living in their colonial past, are
supporting the killing bid,” Agoramoorthy charged.
“I think that people are the problem and not the monkeys,”
Agoramoorthy added. “We took their forest and their land, and the
monkeys are left with nowhere to go. We continue to feed them and
harass them. Now the urbanized monkeys have learned all the skills
to survive among us, with limited resources, the same way we do.”
Civic officials who once viewed street dogs as the ultimate
nuisance are discovering that monkeys are much harder to live with.
They have as fierce a bite, can potentially transmit hundreds more
infections to which humans are susceptible, can climb almost any
obstacle, can manipulate any object made for human hands, and
quickly learn to recognize animal control tools and tactics.
Trained languors are sometimes used in India to drive
unwanted rhesus macaques out of particular buildings or even whole
neighborhoods–but the languors can be even more problematic and
dangerous if they escape and take over the habitat.
The usual options for dealing with a perceived monkey surplus
include sterilization, relocation, and killing monkeys outright,
with sale to laboratories increasingly often emerging as a
politically popular fourth possibility.
Sterilization is the option most favored by animal advocates,
but because monkeys are much harder to catch then either dogs or
cats, neuter/return programs modeled after those used to control
dog-and-cat populations have as yet enjoyed little success. Most
contraceptive drugs developed for humans are effective in
monkeys–indeed, human contraceptives are extensively tested on
laboratory macaques before being cleared for human use–but
administering contraceptives to wild monkeys at appropriate dose
levels is only slightly easier than performing sterilization surgery
Capturing the monkeys is still much the biggest part of the job.
Relocating monkeys is the traditional favored approach in
India, and is practiced in other Asian nations to a more limited
But capturing monkeys for relocation is no easier than
capturing them for sterilization, and as wilderness diminishes,
especially near big cities, finding somewhere to take a captured
troop is no easy chore.
For example, the Supreme Court of India recently directed that 2,500
nuisance monkeys trapped in New Delhi should be sent to the Kuno
Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.
“The monkeys were caught from inside the capital and kept in
cages in the Rajokri area,” explained Bindu Shajan Perappadan of The
Times of India. The Supreme Court ordered the relocation “following
reports of bad maintenance and widespread disease” among the monkeys.
But the urbanized monkeys had no idea how to live in the
wild, charged former TRAFFIC/India director Manoj Mishra–and
because some of the monkeys are believed to carry tuberculosis and
other communicable illnesses, they may threaten the survival of the
Asiatic lions for whom the Kuno Sanctuary was created, at cost of
relocating approximately 10,000 human residents of 19 villages during
a 15-year development effort.
“Their free-ranging existence within the sanctuary and nearby
forests is bound to spread infection to other susceptible animals,”
said Mishra. “In the worst-case scenario they might locate and
maraud nearby human settlements,” inflaming already existing local
antipathy toward the sanctuary.
From lack of perceived alternatives, rural Indian village
elders are increasingly often ordering poisonings of monkeys and
other “nuisance” wildlife, including peacocks and nilgai, a heavily
built antelope also known as a bluebull. All are protected both by
law and Hindu custom, but tend to be least appreciated by the people
living closest to them.
One monkey massacre came to light in early September 2004
when villagers in the Basana-Kalanaur area of Rohtak district,
Haryana state, intercepted several young men who were dumping bloody
bags out of a jeep. Inside the bags were 60 rhesus macaques who had
been poisoned, after which their throats were slashed. One macaque,
still alive, was rescued. The killers were traced to Chang village,
20 miles away, where the macaques were blamed for allegedly causing
several traffic accidents and stealing women’s clothing.
On the same day that Indian news media exposd the details,
Japan Today revealed that tourism association members and town
officials in Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture, had drowned as many as
20 monkeys in recent years. The monkeys were considered a threat to
visitors to the Tsubaki hot springs, the major local attraction.
The monkeys were remnants from as many as 330 who once
inhabited a defunct menagerie. Opened in 1954, the menagerie began
breeding monkeys in 1964, but closed in November 2001. About 80
monkeys still live in and around the former monkey park.
Capturing monkeys for sale to laboratories is as difficult as
capturing them or either sterilization, relocation, or both, but
provides cover to politicians in two directions: it can be
rationalized as helping to cure human diseases and to boost ecnomic
benefits from biotechnology, and it recovers at least some of the
cost of getting rid of nuisance monkeys.
All the rationales familiar to U.S. animal advocates from
decades of working to halt the sale of impounded dogs and cats to
laboratories are now being recycled in Asia in reference to nuisance
But even in China, the world leader in breeding monkeys for
export, selling wild-caught monkeys to labs is not yet broadly
accepted, as 11 would-be monkey dealers in central Anhui state,
China, recently discovered. The would-be dealers in July 2004 drew
prison terms of up to 14 years apiece for buying more than 1,500
rhesus macaques from farmers who were encouraged to trap them.
News coverage hinted that the macaques were to be bootlegged
to laboratories in the U.S., Russia, and Japan.
The Anhui case was soon followed by a second reported example
of alleged subterfuge in connection with foreign monkey sales–but
the second was from Shimla, the capital city of Himachal Pradesh
“The Tajikistan governent has sent a letter to the Indian
government requesting the import of monkeys. We are now considering
exporting them,” Himachal Pradesh wildlife department chief A.K.
Gulati told the BBC in early September.
Purportedly Tajikistan would accept up to 2,000 nuisance
monkeys from Shimla, to be kept in zoos and sanctuaries. But the
dilapidated 40-year-old Dushanbe zoo is the only zoo in Tajikistan,
housing 1,059 specimens of 254 species at the most recent official
count a decade ago–and the collection has reportedly been
significantly downsized since then, as attendance has fallen from
more than 3,000 per weekend at peak to fewer than 150.
What Tajikistan does have is a strong trading relationship
with Russia, as a former member of the Soviet Union.
Thirty years ago India was the leading supplier of monkeys to
laboratories in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In 1977,
however, then-Indian prime minister Morarji Desai responded to
exposes of the suffering of rhesus macaques in labs by banning all
exports of nonhuman primates. Winning the ban helped to form the
reputations of the Blue Cross of India, founded in 1959, and the
International Primate Protection League, founded in 1973.
Monkeys are frequently problematic in Africa, too, with
recent incidents reported from Kassala, Sudan, near the Eritrea
border, to Durban, South Africa.
Kassala resident Salah Osman al-Khedr told the newspaper
Al-Anbaa that monkeys from recently clear-cut forests are staging
“organized attacks which last several hours” against bakeries and
grocery stores, and are raiding homes, where they snatch food from
women and children.
Kenya Wildlife Service wardens shot at least 10 of 200
monkeys who raided farms near three drought-stricken villages in
early August, and called for reinforcements after the survivors
stoned them into hiding.
In Durban, Steve Smit of Justice for Animals and Helena
Fichat of the Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife told Xolani
Mbanjwa of Agence France-Presse, the biggest monkey issue is that
irate property owners illegally shoot the animals with pellet guns
and leave them to suffer.
“The public doesn’t understand that monkeys don’t invade
territories. They simply move around the same area,” said Smit.
“We have educated many people on how to treat monkeys and prevent
them from doing harm to their homes. They don’t understand the
trauma that these animals go through. It can be days before they die
from a pellet wound.”
Monkeys are rarely eaten in mostly Islamic north Africa, and
in the mostly Christian nations along the east coast and in the
southern third of the continent. In the heavily animist interior and
western Africa, where monkeys are eaten, they also raid crops, but
have learned to be more wary.
Species internationally recognized as endangered are usually
protected by seldom enforced laws. Common species, along with any
species that resemble them when roasted, are sold on the open
Henry H. Ssali of The Monitor in Kampala, Uganda, in July
2004 found that Congolese monkey-hunters are welcomed by government
personnel in the Kalangala Islands, who take their cue from Ugandan
agriculture minister Israel Kibirige Ssebunya.
“When the Chinese had plague, they ate all the rats,”
Ssebunya told Ssali, misdescribing a primary mode of transmission as
a preventive measure. “In northern Uganda,” Seebunya continued,
“the local hens are thriving because the people there eat the bush
cats and eagles,” another dubious assertion.
During the regime of former cannibal dictator Idi Amin,
Ssebunya said, he trained Liberian coffee growers.
“The place was abundant with monkeys, which were eating
people’s cocoa,” Ssebunya claimed, apparently not remembering from
one sentence to the next what their product was. “The guys ate all
the monkeys and the problem was no more. If Ugandans cannot eat the
monkeys,” Ssebunya finished, “at least we should find a market for
them. Should we shoot and bury them? No, we should eat them.”
Uganda permits trade in vervets and baboons, Uganda Wildlife
Authority public relations manager Lillian Nsubuga told Ssali.
“They have been declared a problem animal, are a nuisance,
and are in abundance. Their reproductive rate is very high. They
have a low conservation status,” Nsubuga summarized. “We encourage
those who want to trade in monkeys to apply for a license so that
they do it legally,” she finished.
Monkeys, and indeed all animals, wild or domestic, have
historically been viewed primarily as a resource in
Cantonese-speaking southern and coastal China, as well as in the
port cities throughout Southeast Asia where Cantonese-speaking
populations have become established. But monkeys have not commonly
been eaten in recent times–which is not to say they are not on pricy
Monkeys were, and are, among the most costly fare in
wildlife meat markets. Eating the brains of a live monkey is an
ancient ritual practiced occasionally by military officers,
mobsters, and others seeking to impress each other with shows of
Live monkey-brain eating is still sometimes documented,
including in lurid tabloid exposes in some places where other forms
of wildlife consumption were routine before the 2003 SARS panic, and
remain socially acceptable even if the wild animal supply is now
The most recent authenticated case scandalized Taiwan in
mid-July 2004, after the Apple Daily described how two months
earlier a horrified male tourist from Taoyan county bought a monkey
from a restaurant in the central mountains of Nantou after realizing
that other customers were about to eat the monkey’s brain. The man
took the monkey, whose head had been shaved in preparation, to
forestry officials who in turn housed the monkey at a wildlife park
pending a decision as to whether he could be returned to the wild.
To people who would eat a live monkey’s brains, trapping
street monkeys for sale to laboratories poses more practical issues
than moral concerns–but monkey-brain eating became the display of
authority unrestrained by scruple that it did precisely because even
most Cantonese found it barbaric.
Surveying 1,300 students at 13 Chinese universities during
2002-2003, researchers Peter Li, Zu Shuxian, and Su Pei-feng found
that 89% to 90% consider eating a live monkey’s brains unacceptably
cruel, even though most had little exposure to any form of
The students were not asked about invasive research done on
monkeys, but their comparably strong views on other cruelty issues
suggest that many might have misgivings, that a monument might
acknowledge more than ease.