Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Monkey Business

Tuesday September 11, 2007

Monkey business


Animal rights groups object to the trade in longtailed macaques for fear that a cruel fate awaits the monkeys in testing facilities.

IN 1984, the government banned the export of long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) amidst international outcry against the abuse of the monkeys in bio-medical and military laboratories in the United States.

An international syndicate was capturing and smuggling the monkeys primarily for US scientific testing needs. More than 300,000 long-tailed macaques from Peninsular Malaysia were exported over 25 years from 1959, until the ban was instituted.

Scavenger: A monkey going through garbage in search of food. Urban monkeys are regarded as pests by some.
Now, it looks like the safeguard for the protected species has been overturned. Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid announced on Aug 17 that the Cabinet had, on June 27, decided to allow the export of long-tailed macaques captured from urban areas.

Azmi cited macaque attacks on humans and the failure of relocation and sterilisation programmes as reasons for lifting the trade ban on macaques in urban areas. He ruled out culling because “it is cruel to shoot them”.

He said the public must not get emotional over the issue and challenged animal rights groups to come up with suggestions to the long-standing human-macaque conflict.

The SPCA Selangor, Malaysian Animal Assisted Therapy for Disabled Association, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Malaysian Association for Responsible Pet Ownership have grouped under an umbrella body called the Malaysian Animal Rights and Welfare Society (Roar), and submitted a memorandum to the minister demanding the reinstatement of the ban and a halt on all pending macaque shipments. They also lodged a police report against Azmi and ministry officials for violating Section 92(f) of the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972.

Referring to the insufferable fate that macaques undergo at animal-testing facilities overseas, they said ministry officials were themselves committing cruelty against wildlife. Roar conceded that if there was a serious macaque over-population problem, sterilisation and humane culling were better options.

Malaysians got a foretaste of the sickly nature of the trade when over 1,000 longtailed macaques bound for export were uncovered in a horrifying state in an orchard in Pontian, Johor, early July.

About 100 rotting carcasses were found by wildlife officers. Three locals and an Indonesian were arrested, and Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) is still investigating the case. Surviving animals were released into jungles.

Biological warfare

The International Primate Protection League (IPPL) has long documented the cruelty in the use of non-human primates in scientific experiments. It found wasteful experimentation, incompetence and neglect of monkeys used for tests between 1979 and 1981, in the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

IPPL’s campaigns have led to halts in macaque trade in several countries. IPPL chairperson Dr Shirley McGreal said the Malaysian ban was preceded by Thailand in 1975, India in 1977 and Bangladesh in 1979.

Recently, IPPL was alerted to the renewed use of non-human primates for tests, this time in Chinese laboratories. Long-tailed macaques are being massively traded in China and most of the creatures originate from Cambodia and Vietnam.

US Fish and Wildlife Services statistics reveal that 26,638 primates were imported last year, a 44% increase over the 2004 figures of 18,534. Topping the list were long-tailed macaques (24,480).

Good till the last drop: A monkey enjoying a discarded canned drink.
“The trade escalated in 2006 when 2,532 monkeys, purportedly bred in Cambodia, reached the US. ‘IPPL has received reports on alleged unsatisfactory conditions at these facilities and suspicions that wild-caught monkeys are being exported on fake ‘captive-born’ documents,” said McGreal.

There is concern that the present trade is to facilitate bio-weapon experiments. Fresh funding for Fort Detrick is being channelled towards the use of non-human primates for exposure to the Ebola virus, ricin, anthrax and radio-frequency radiation, among others.

Being physiologically closest to humans, primates are ideal candidates for vaccine efficacy studies.

McGreal said Malaysians needed to know that indigenous monkeys from the country were likely to be sold to these labs.

“They will suffer horribly during the laboratory experiment. There is no way of conducting research humanely when dealing with biological warfare agents.”

As long-tailed macaque is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), Perhilitan has produced a non-detrimental finding (NDF) to show that the trade will not have a deleterious effect on the species’ survival.

According to the NDF, there are 258,406 macaques in urban areas and 483,747 at forest fringes.

Many people are suspicious of the exact numbers of the tally, which quite impossible to determine in the wildlife inventory. Population estimates normally appear as a range.

Some questioned the motive behind the NDF exercise because Malaysia has not produced any NDF for all the Appendix II species that it trades in, such as the monitor lizard and reticulated python. A wildlife trade observer said the NDF appears to be an exercise to facilitate the issuance of Cites export permits. He expects the findings to be challenged by the scientific and conservation communities.

It is learnt that the study was conducted between March and June. To get rid of the 179,120 monkeys purportedly found in high conflict zone in urban centres, a removal rate ranging from 20% to 90% over five years was suggested. A 90% extraction will see only 31 monkeys left in urban areas by the end of the plan.

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