Trafficking in Misery: The Primate Trade

By Linda Howard & Dena Jones

Fall 2000

On a late summer day in 1998, a China Airlines flight carrying American and Asian vacationers touched down on the runway at San Francisco International Airport. Below the passengers in the plane's cargo hold sat 40 monkeys in small wooden crates. When an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention peered inside the individual compartments, he saw that 11 of the animals had died, apparently from dehydration and heat during the lengthy flight. The monkeys were pig-tailed macaques, a species classified as "vulnerable" by the World Conservation Union. Captured in traps set in the forests of Indonesia, the animals were on their way to the Regional Primate Center at the University of Washington to be subjects in a laboratory experiment.

Extinct Within a Generation

In January 2000, Conservation International released its report on "Primates in Peril." The results were grim. According to the report, one in five species of primates could become extinct within a generation.

More than 130 of the world's primate species are endangered with wild populations of nonhuman primates at risk in all of the 92 countries in which they occur. Primates are primarily found in tropical rain forests where they play a important role in the ecosystem by helping to disperse seeds and pollinate plants.

Many factors contribute to the perilously small numbers of threatened and vanishing primate species, such as the destruction of their habitat by increasing populations of humans and the hunting of adult monkeys and apes for bush meat. However, capture for export and poaching have an enormous impact on the dwindling numbers of primate species, ranging from the magnificent mountain gorilla to the tiny mouse lemur.

The international trade in primates, including many species of monkeys, chimpanzees, and orangutans, is accelerating the decline of our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom to the point of near extinction.

Each year, more than 32,000 wild-caught primates are sold on the international market. Some conservative estimates are that over one-quarter of this trade is illegal. In fact, INTERPOL (the international police agency) maintains that illegal wildlife trade is a $5-billion-a-year business, second only to drugs as a worldwide black market. The animals are sold for food, for use in laboratory research, for exhibition, and for keeping by private individuals as companions.

Every year for more than a decade, the United States has imported about 1/3 of all primates sold internationally, a greater number of primates than the following four importing countries combined, with the United Kingdom consistently importing the second highest number of primates. Though the number of primates imported each year has fluctuated, Japan, Russia, The Netherlands, France, and Taiwan have long ranked among the top five importing countries. In recent years, wild-caught primates have been exported from many countries where they exist indigenously -- predominately from Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Thailand, and China.

Imported for Laboratories

Under the Public Health Service Act, nonhuman primates may be imported into the U.S. and sold only for "scientific, educational, or exhibition purposes." Nonhuman primates may also be imported for use in breeding colonies provided that all offspring will be used only for these purposes. The animals may not be imported into the U.S. for keeping as companion animals or for occasional display purposes. The law also does not allow primates to be brought into the U.S. for medical treatment or to be retired at a sanctuary. Although some nonhuman primates are imported for exhibition (both zoo and circus), the vast majority of animals are brought here for use in laboratory experimentation.

Though captive primate breeding centers, largely funded by the government, have been established in the United States to supply primates for biomedical research, the demand for imported primates seems to be unabated. For some species of wild-caught primates, the numbers of export/imports have increased. For example, in 1991 the World Conservation Monitoring Center reported that a total of 1,043 baboons were exported from their countries of origin to various countries worldwide. In the past five years, 1,580 baboons were imported from their countries of origin to the United States alone:

Number of baboons imported to the United States from 1995-1999

Year
Number of baboons
1995
250

1996

220

1997

325

1998

335

1999

450
Total
1,580

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service LEMIS
(Law Enforcement Management Information Service)

A Long-Held Interest

Scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere have long held an interest in nonhuman primates. In 1928, at Yale University, Robert M. Yerkes established the first major primate facility, focusing almost exclusively on behavioral observations. The facility was later moved to Orange Park, FL, in pursuit of warmer climates.

In 1956, James Watt, at the time Director of the U.S. National Heart Institute, visited the Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy in the U.S.S.R. Based on the primate experimentation to which he was introduced, Watts focused his efforts to develop a large primate research facility in the United States.

Soon after, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) formed a planning committee and decided to erect several regionally based primate centers instead of one large center. The first federally-funded regional primate research center was established in 1962 in Beaverton, OR.

A regional primate research center was dedicated in Seattle in 1963 and in subsequent years centers were established in five other cities: Madison, WI (Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center); Southborough, MA (New England Regional Primate Research Center); Atlanta, GA (Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center); Covington, LA (Tulane Regional Primate Research Center, formerly Delta Regional Primate Center); and Davis, CA (California Regional Primate Research Center.)

In September 1999, the National Institutes of Health announced that it had established a new federally-funded primate research center, the eighth RPRC, at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, in San Antonio, TX.

The eight regional primate centers currently have in excess of 20,000 nonhuman primates representing over 32 separate species. In addition to the regional primate research centers, hundreds of universities and private companies use nonhuman primates in research throughout the United States. Nonhuman primates most commonly used in experimentation in the U.S. are rhesus and crab-eating or long-tailed macaques. Other primates used as research subjects include chimpanzees; baboons; capuchin, spider, squirrel, and vervet (also known as "grivet" or "green") monkeys; tamarins, and marmosets.

Use Is on the Rise

Researchers are as fascinated by nonhuman primates now as they were 100 years ago. The number of publications regarding primate studies has increased by more than 50% since 1970. Despite the higher costs and increasing difficulty associated with obtaining nonhuman primates, as well as their comparatively lower reproduction rates, longer developmental periods, and special requirements for handling, management, and housing, the use of nonhuman primates is on the rise in the United States, contrary to popular belief:

Number of nonhuman primates used in research in U.S.

Year
Number of nonhuman primates
1995
50,206

1996

52,327

1997

56,381

1998

57,377
Total
216,291

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

One explanation for the recent increase in baboon imports and experimentation is scientific fascination with xenotransplantation, the harvesting of animal organs, cells, and tissues for use in humans. Baboons have been the nonhuman primate of choice for this research since before the highly publicized "Baby Fae" case in 1984, where scientists at Loma Linda University implanted the heart from a 7-month-old baboon in a newborn human infant.

In addition to xenotransplantation, nonhuman primates are used in a vast array of experimental protocols, including research on HIV (SHIV, SIV, AIDS); cancer; heart disease; infectious disease; neurological disorders; shock; nutrition; reproduction; vision; dental research; behavior; vaccine and drug/pharmaceutical testing; maternal deprivation; xenotransplantation; aging studies and disease; cognition; tropical disease; and irradiation.

All About Money

While removing monkeys from the wild and shipping them halfway around the world is costly, the alternative of breeding them in captivity is even more expensive. Due to the time involved, it's estimated that raising a monkey in captivity costs three times as much as taking one from the wild. Monkeys, both wild-caught and captive-bred, are imported into the U.S. despite the fact that monkeys are bred here, some of which are even exported to other countries for research. Shipments of monkeys are occasionally flown into the U.S. and immediately flown out again if a U.S. airline will accept the shipment or carry it more cheaply than a foreign airline. The primate trade is all about money, how the largest number of animals can be procured for the least amount of money.

Most primates are imported, not by the research facilities themselves, but by commercial dealers who supply the laboratories with animals. More than half of the primates imported to the U.S. in the past five years were brought in by just two companies and their affiliates -- Charles River, Inc. and Covance Research Products, Inc. (see "Primate Suppliers").

The advent of jet airplanes in the 1940s catapulted the primate trade industry by great magnitudes. Whereas transporting primates by ship often took months to complete, and resulted in a mortality rate estimated to have been in excess of 80%, transportation by air involved days. However, transportation by air did nothing to decrease the suffering of primates as the numbers of animals traded drastically increased.

Animal Misery on a Massive Scale

The international trade in primates causes animal misery on a massive scale. At every step in the process -- from branches in their lush jungle home to cages in cold, barren laboratories -- primates suffer and die by the thousands.

For one year, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) conducted a difficult and sometimes dangerous investigation into the international trade in primates for research. Members of the BUAV team traveled to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mauritius where monkeys are captured and bred for research. They watched as local villagers and farmers set traps by using nets or laying bait in crates or baskets. The large net traps, baited with fruit, are sprung once a group of animals venture inside. Whole families are caught in this way. Undesirable animals are not released but may be beaten to death and sold for meat (see "African Bush Meat").

Surviving animals are then taken in tiny crates with little or no food or water to holding centers where they await shipment to the U.S. or Europe. Overcrowding in the holding centers results in fighting between animals. Animals may be unable to stand normally in the small, dirty wooden crates. Some succumb to the intense tropical heat. In the larger cages, survivors are forced to climb over their dead companions.

Animals unwanted for research are weeded out at this stage. Females and younger animals are most desirable. Monkeys who are too large, too sick, too thin, or too old are killed. According to a 1992 BUAV investigation, up to 75% of the animals may be disposed of at the holding centers.

Other monkeys may be taken to breeding centers to replace breeding stock. It's difficult to accurately determine the percentage of animals being taken from the wild versus bred in captivity. The designation of "captive-bred" usually refers to animals whose parents were also born and raised in captivity; in other words, at least two generations removed from the wild. However, unscrupulous primate breeders have been known to pass off as captive-bred the offspring of pregnant females captured in the wild and even wild-caught animals themselves.

Only 1 in 9 Survives

Animals selected for research are packed into cramped crates and loaded into the cargo holds of passenger airlines for the next leg of their journey (see "The Airline Connection"). The flight may cover thousands of miles and last 48 hours or more. Journeys usually involve two or more flights, some with lengthy layovers.

Death during these flights is not unusual. Each year, upon arrival at airports in the U.S. and Europe, animals are found to have died from hypothermia, dehydration, and diarrhea. Once on the ground, the monkeys are trucked to holding centers, animal supply companies, and laboratories for quarantine. During the subsequent quarantine period more animals die from pneumonia and other diseases. In 1998, for example, 7 monkeys in quarantine at LABS monkey supplier in Virginia died from "environmental causes/trauma." A thermostat in one of the holding rooms malfunctioned and as the temperature rose to 106 degrees, monkeys in the upper tier cages died.

As of 1992, the BUAV estimates that in some cases only one in every nine monkeys captured in the wild survives the journey from the jungle to the lab. And once the animals arrive at the research facility, even greater misery often awaits. Locked alone in cold metal cages, far from their tropical home, and without companionship and appropriate environmental enrichment, they are destined to endure pain and suffering in the name of science and education.

Linda Howard is an animal rights advocate specializing in primates and founder of the AESOP-Project (Allied Effort to Save Other Primates). Dena Jones is Program Director for the Animal Protection Institute.


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African Bush Meat

By Barry Kent MacKay

The term "bush meat" historically refers to meat derived from wild animals locally killed by hunters who are part of the community. People living in areas remote from other sources of protein traditionally eat bush meat as an essential part of their diets, just as their ancestors from times long past.

People may be tempted to take the romantic view that bush meat is still only consumed by remote "tribes" who "live off the land" as their ancestors always have and are therefore both independent from, in no way responsible for, the widespread environmental degradation of the environment imposed by world's ever burgeoning urban populations. Such "native" people have always hunted for natural, free-living wildlife, the argument goes, and without causing species to become endangered, or without taking land away from wildlife to raise livestock, or depending on the excessively cruel and environmentally damaging practice of factory farming. They live off the land, and are a natural part of the landscape, just like other predators.

Alas, in increasing parts of the world, particularly Africa, that relatively benign scenario no longer holds true. For years, affluent Africans in cities have paid $40 for a plate of monkey as a cultural link to their ancestral villages. But in frontier towns, the meat sells for a fraction of the cost of beef and chicken -- protein that poor people can afford.

One recent study in Cameroon found that at the local level a small-scale commercial bush meat trade consisted of both local subsistence hunting and some commercial trade of the meat within the community. Demand, therefore, was relatively limited.

Unfortunately for the survival of a variety of primates and other wildlife species, it does not stop there. Increasingly bush meat is transported into the city market places, or exported across international borders. It has, in recent years, even become a trendy food in some restaurants in Europe. There is simply no way that wild populations can supply such an insatiable demand, and numbers of monkeys and other wildlife are in rapid decline even in areas where viable habitat remains.

In his book, Myth and Reality in the Rainforest (University of California Press, 1999), John F. Oates, a primate ecologist with more than three decades of field work in Africa and Asia, describes his frustrations at trying to find populations of certain monkey species to study in west Africa. During a 1979 survey in Sierra Leone, he found that slash and burn agriculture had destroyed most of the monkeys' forest homeland. Monkey hunters regularly visited what little forest remained from Liberia, where monkey meat is a treasured delicacy. Liberians had killed off most of their own sources of bush meat, and so set up camps in Sierra Leone where the monkeys were jointed and smoked and shipped back to Liberia.

In the past two decades the situation has only worsened. Colonialism shattered local culture and custom; technology facilitated widespread movement of human populations while producing ever more effective means of destroying habitat and killing animals; environmental degradation and burgeoning human populations against a backdrop of various degrees and forms of civil strife lead to impoverishment and desperation. Under such conditions wild animals become a major source of food and income. Hunters are taking 1 million metric tons of game from the African forests every years, an amount equal to about 4 million cattle. As commercial interests supersede immediate subsistence needs, the killing of wildlife becomes unsustainable.


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The Airline Connection


Airline passengers on domestic and international flights would be shocked to learn that they may be flying in the same plane with monkeys destined for research laboratories. Each year thousands of monkeys, some of them captured from the wild, are transported by commercial airlines to the U.S. for the purpose of experimentation.

Animals shipped long distances as cargo suffer from cramped conditions, inadequate ventilation, and extreme temperature fluctuations. Suffering and death can result, as illustrated by the following incidents described in U.S. government documents obtained by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) and the International Primate Protection League (IPPL), and provided to API:

  • In August 1992, Lufthansa Airlines shipped 110 long-tailed macaques from Indonesia. All 110 monkeys on board were discovered dead on the plane's arrival in Florida. Shock and stress caused by freezing temperatures and lack of proper ventilation was cited as the cause.
  • In May 1997, Air France transported a shipment of monkeys from Indonesia to the U.S., via Paris. During the flight, one monkey escaped from her crate, causing the entire shipment to be held up for two days while all of the crates were reinforced to prevent further escapes. In Paris, a nursing female monkey was found dead, and her baby subsequently killed. Although the shipment of pregnant females and suckling young is a violation of U.S. law, Air France has yet to be charged.
  • In March 1998, two long-tailed monkeys were found to be dead among a shipment of animals transported by Garuda Indonesia Airlines from Indonesia to Los Angeles.
  • In August 1998, in a shipment of animals transported by China Airlines from the Philippines to Atlanta, two long-tailed monkeys were discovered to be dead from colitis and diarrhea.

Thanks to the efforts of BUAV and IPPL, a number of U.S.-based and foreign airlines have agreed to no longer transport primates. Delta, TWA, and United, for example, all refuse to participate in this despicable trade that causes suffering and death to tens of thousands of primates each year. Unfortunately, several airlines remain to be convinced. In joining the BUAV in its primate trade campaign, API asks its members to consider individual airline involvement in the primate trade when making flight arrangements.


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Airlines continuing to transport primates (partial list as of 2000):

American Airlines
Continental (1)
Northwest Airlines
US Airways (2) Aeroflot (Russia)
Air China (China)
Air France (France)
China Airlines (Taiwan) (3)
China Eastern Airlines (China)
Egyptair (Egypt)
El-Al (Israel)
Japan Airlines (Japan)
Lufthansa (Germany)

(1) Continental has adopted a policy banning primates on international flights.
(2)US Airways has an embargo on the transport of laboratory animals to Frankfurt, London, and Paris, and ships monkeys domestically only for zoo transfer and not for laboratory research.
(3)China Airlines announced that as of September 5, 2000, it "will not accept live primates destined for experimentation as cargo."


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Primate Suppliers-Primate supply company

Number of nonhuman primates imported (1995-1999)

Company
Number of monkey's and apes imported
Buckshire Corporation
787
New Iberia Research Center
882
LABS of Virginia
1,376
Osage Research Primates
2,016
Primate Products
2,876
Sierra Biomedical, Inc. (a division of Charles River)
4,117
HRP, Inc. (Hazelton Research Projects)
5,712
Covance Research Products, Inc.
8,286
Charles River BRF, Inc.
15,363
Total
41,415

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service LEMIS
(Law Enforcement Management Information Service)