Wild-caught macaques may have flooded into U.S. labs for more than 15 years before the feds moved to stop the traffic
HONG KONG–Did a small amount of monkey-eating in southern China cover for the development of large amount of monkey trafficking from the wild to U.S. labs?
ANIMALS 24-7 and the International Primate Protection League asked that question in July 2007.
The answer we got from the U.S. government agencies supposed to be regulating the international traffic in laboratory animals amounted to “Hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil.”
Busted in Florida
On November 16, 2022, however, more than 15 years later, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida announced that “Members of an international primate smuggling ring have been charged with multiple felonies for their role in bringing wild long-tailed macaques into the United States.”
That bust, though, involved a twist on the traffic from China spotlighted in 2007. The eight individuals now facing criminal charges allegedly captured monkeys from the wild in Cambodia, then produced false paperwork certifying that the monkeys were captive-bred, before selling them to the U.S. via Hong Kong.
Vanny allegedly copied Chinese scheme
Vanny Resources Holdings, Ltd., of Hong Kong, and a Cambodian subsidiary, Vanny Bio Research Corporation Ltd., appear to have adapted a “monkey-laundering” scheme formerly run through China to operate through Cambodia instead.
Vanny apparently took advantage of the disruption in monkey commerce from China caused by COVID-19 and U.S./China conflicts over trade policy to muscle into the monkey business.
Exports of wild-caught macaques from Southeast Asia to the U.S. and Europe for laboratory use developed, ANIMALS 24-7 and the International Primate Protection League warned in 2007, at a time when monkey-trapping and smuggling appeared to be increasing throughout Southeast Asia, allegedly for Chinese live markets where the monkeys were said to be offered for human consumption.
SARS triggered Chinese crackdown on wildlife consumption
Yet reports from within China at the time indicated no rise in monkey consumption, amid increasing government efforts to suppress eating contraband wildlife.
The Chinese campaign against wildlife consumption rapidly intensified in the wake of the 2002-2004 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that killed 782 people worldwide, 648 of them in southern China and Hong Kong.
Simultaneously, U.S. laboratory use of nonhuman primates more than doubled, from 25,534 in 2002 and 25,834 in 2003, to 54,998 in 2004, and 57,531 in 2005.
Laboratory monkey demand
The growth in U.S. laboratory demand for monkeys continued to rise until 2017, according to USDA Animal & Plant Inspection Service data, peaking at 76,000 in 2017 before dipping to 68,257 in 2019. More recent numbers are not yet available.
The dip in monkey use was occasioned chiefly by scarcity. The price of a macaque for lab use meanwhile soared from about $500 circa 2007 to more than $10,000 by February 2021, according to a New York Times report.
Increased Chinese monkey exports to the U.S. appear to account for more than half of the increased U.S. use between 2002-2003 and 2004-2005, but the numbers of monkeys reportedly in Chinese breeding colonies were then not nearly enough to produce the numbers that U.S. users bought.
Importing wild-caught monkeys for lab use is illegal
Between concerns about accidentally importing diseases transmissible to humans and the requirements of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES], U.S. law has long prohibited importing wild-caught monkeys for research.
Further, both crab-eating [cynomolgus] and rhesus macaques, the most often imported species, are protected in China. Neither may be legally hunted or captured from the wild.
Yet macaque dealers in southern China emerged–with government help––to fill the U.S. lab demand.
Even if the Chinese dealers by 2007 had enough macaques to produce the volume sold, where did they get their breeding stock?
Resurrecting “eaten ” monkeys
Imports for consumption very likely were one method, perhaps the main method.
A monkey who has purportedly been eaten could disappear from any existing records, but could be resurrected through paperwork as “captive-bred,” therefore legal for use in breeding or export.
Questionable numbers surfaced in a July 7, 2007 report about the Chinese monkey business by Stephen Chen of the South China Morning Post.
Xie Liping, owner of the Guangxi Weimei Bio-Tech Company in Nanning, “runs one of the biggest primate breeding centers in Guangxi, a region that produces half of the nation’s monkeys used for experiments,” Chen wrote. “She started four years ago with fewer than 100 crab-eating macaques and now has more than 12,000.
“When a huge expansion project––covering the equivalent of 31 soccer fields––is completed next year,” Chen said, “50 barracks wrapped in shiny steel bars will be home to 20,000 monkeys.”
Monkeys don’t breed like flies
But “fewer than 100 crab-eating macaques” could not breed up to 12,000 in four years, or 20,000 in five years. A crab-eating macaque does not reach estrus until age four, and bears only one infant per year.
Thus, even if most of Xie Liping’s macaques were females, they could at maximum have increased to about 500. If Xie Liping had 12,000 in July 2007, most must have been bought from other sources.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service records show that Guangxi Weimei Bio-Tech sold 600 monkeys to the U.S. in 2006. That might be plausible, but would leave no surplus for expanded breeding.
Xie Liping did not allow Chen to visit her breeding center, saying that her monkeys could not be exposed to human germs.
China encouraged sale to U.S. labs
“Among Weimei’s 12,000 monkeys,” Chen reported, “3,000 will be selected, quarantined, and sold to the U.S. this year. (2007)”
Continued Chen, “The Weimei breeding centre is one of the many rapidly growing number of farms on the mainland for raising monkeys, with most found in Guangxi and Guangdong.
“Stimulated by soaring demand from U.S. bio-defense programs, supported by governments at various levels, and heavily funded by private investors, the scale of primate farms on the mainland has tripled within half a decade.”
According to Chen, “The central government got the ball rolling in 2002 with the release of the nation’s first primate-breeding standards. Beijing, Hubei, and Guangdong provinces followed a year later, publishing their own guidelines. Similar work started in Guangxi in 2004,” two years after Xie Liping founded her business.
Guangxi Department of Science and Technology director of experimental affairs Wei Gang told Chen that there were eight registered monkey farms in Guangxi, housing about 40,000 monkeys in 2006, but rapidly expanding, with several new breeders entering the business.
“Monkeys from Guangxi are also sold to the European Union, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan,” Chen wrote.
Wei Gang confirmed past irregularities. Before government licensing began in 2001, he told Chen, “Some [monkey breeders] even bought wild species on the black market and sold them as domestic pets.”
On July 7, 2007, the same day Chen’s article appeared, Malaysian wildlife department criminal division deputy director Celescoriano Razond capped a two-week probe by seizing 950 crab-eating macques and arresting four men, three Malaysians and an Indonesian, on a plantation in Pontian, Johor.
“The monkeys, captured from the jungles of the central state of Pahang and the southern state of Johor, are believed to have been headed for either China or Holland,” wrote Meera Vijayan of the Malaysia Star. Razond told her that those going to China would probably be eaten, while those going to the Netherlands would be used in labs.
“The monkeys were found in a pitiful condition in filthy cages and blue gunny sacks. Around 100 dead monkeys were found piled in a heap nearby,” Vijayan noted.
China made example of vendor
Though monkeys were still covertly eaten in China, the practice was discouraged, as China Daily discussed on December 13, 2006, reporting that “A man narrowly escaped arrest after illegally selling monkey flesh in Haikou, capital of south China’s Hainan province.”
The single incident was considered nationally newsworthy, if only to make an example of the alleged offender.
“The man beat a gong to advertise his wares,” and was photographed in the act, “but fled before the public security bureau could apprehend him,” according to the Nanguo Metropolitan newspaper, whose article China Daily summarized.
“The vendor claimed his monkey flesh was fresh from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The meat sold quickly,” China Daily added, “but some passers-by “disapproved, saying it is cruel to kill a monkey and sell it as food.”
Continued China Daily, “An official from the Haikou Forestry Public Security Bureau said killing monkeys and selling their meat breaks the laws protecting wild animals. If apprehended, the vendor will be fined six to ten times the sum he made from his sales.”
U.S. imports of crab-eating macaques increased from 14,778 in 2001 to 27,270 in 2005, according to CITES documents obtained by Chen.
Imports from China rose from 3,266 to 12,878, less the 30,000-plus imported annually from China alone before COVID-19 hit the trade in 2020.
Ten of the top 20 monkey exporters to the U.S. in 2006 were Chinese companies, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service records obtained by the International Primate Protection League. Of the 11,712 monkeys they sent to the U.S., just one firm, Guangdong
Scientific Instruments & Materials, provided 5,494.
Mauritian firms sent 4,191, Vietnamese firms sent 3,596, and exporters from Cambodia (1,532), Indonesia (913), and the Philippines (368) rounded out the list.
Altogether, the U.S. imported 26,338 nonhuman primates in 2006, a slight decrease from 2005. At least 23,756 (90%) of the 2005 total were for lab use.
Shirley McGreal predicted risk of endangerment
“Unfortunately many of these monkeys have already been killed in bio-warfare or infectious disease experiments,” said IPPL founder Shirley McGreal. “Most were crab-eating macaques. This species may be doomed [in the wild] if wholesale trade predation is not controlled,” McGreal predicted, noting that U.S. imports accounted for only part of the trade.
Sure enough, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2022 designated crab-eating macaques an endangered species.
That designation, however, while influential, does not automatically convey additional protection for crab-eating macaques under either the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and does not apply to captive-bred crab-eating macaques, as practically all of those in commerce are purported to be.
“Some U.S. and European users are exporting their research to foreign countries with relaxed or no animal protection laws or enforcement,” McGreal pointed out, “such as two U.S. labs,” the Washington National Primate Center and the Southwest Foundation for
Biomedical Research, “which are setting up branches in Nepal.”
Both IPPL and the Australian organization Primates Helping Primates were at the time spotlighting the efforts of Animal Nepal and the Wildlife Watch Group of Nepal to draw attention to the Nepalese projects. Nepalese animal advocates contend that the monkey labs operate contrary to traditional Hindu and Buddhist teachings.
McGreal helped to win increased protection for slow lorises, a small nocturnal primate native to much of Southeast Asia, at the June 2007 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, held in the Netherlands.
Delegates from the 170-odd member nations agreed at request of Cambodia to elevate the slow loris to Appendix I status, meaning that the animal has since then been internationally recognized as endangered, and may not be commercially sold across national boundaries.
Some slow lorises have also been sold as pets, chiefly in Japan. The major threat to slow lorises, however, other than from habitat loss, is from the traditional medicine industry.
U.S.-funded research remains major threat
The traditional medicine industry is a formidable foe, to be sure, but is much less a threat to any primate species than U.S. government-funded primate research is to crab-eating macaques.
IPPL and other primate protection groups received only a deferred promise of consideration of a CITES listing for Barbary macaques, the North African species whose colony at Gibraltar are the only wild monkeys in Europe. Barbary macaques were, however, added to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of endangered species in 2008.
While Barbary macaques are rarely used in labs, there appeared then, and still appears to be, considerable resistance in many nations to protecting any macaques, as a possible step toward CITES protecting as “lookalike” species those who are in commercial demand.
Increasing lab demand for macaques meanwhile has had some scientists looking covetously at the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 feral rhesus macaques who inhabit Cayo Santiago, an island off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, where they are property of the Caribbean Primate Research Center.
Currently used in observational research only, the Cayo Santiago macaques were introduced to Puerto Rico by primatologist Clarence Carpenter, who brought about 450 of the monkeys by ship from India to be bred for laboratory use nearly 100 years ago.
The National Humane Review, formerly published by the American Humane Association, mentioned efforts to extirpate the macaques in the 1930s.
The Puerto Rican government circa 2006 invested about $450,000 in a capture campaign, according to Danica Coto of Associated Press, but none are currently known to have been removed since Hurricane Maria knocked the macaque population down by about half in September 2017.