A U.N.-affiliated organization is attempting to interrupt Laos’ booming monkey business as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species recently suspended exports of long-tailed macaques from the Southeast Asian nation.
The CITES decision comes after investigations by animal welfare activists uncovered a “monkey washing” scam in which unscrupulous wildlife traders in Laos sold wild macaques to China, Vietnam and Cambodia, and dealers in those countries re-exported the primates to other nations falsely labeled as originating in those countries.
“Our investigations have raised serious concerns about the plundering of wild populations of long-tailed macaques from their native forests to feed the international research industry,” Sarah Kite, special projects director for U.K.-based Cruelty Free International, told RFA’s Lao Service.
“In particular, there is an unregulated trade and the misrepresentation of the origin of thousands of macaques exported from Laos to China and Vietnam,” she explained.
While the ethics of animal research are a hotly-debated topic, scientists say macaques are still necessary. Long-tailed macaques are often lumped together with their cousins the rhesus monkeys as both animals are used extensively in medical experiments because their physiology is close to humans.
Laos has become a major player in the monkey trade along with Cambodia and Vietnam, as laboratories seek animals for their experiments. Long-tailed macaques are especially valuable in research connected with neuroscience and human diseases.
“They are only used where no other species would suffice and have been instrumental in science as diverse as AIDS research, developing deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s Disease and the testing of certain classes of drugs which can’t be tested in other species,” said said Chris McGee, a spokesman for the U.K.-based organization Understanding Animal Research.
The $15,000 monkey
Hard numbers for the monkey trade are difficult to come by, but a single macaque sells from $5,000 to $15,000. About 20,000 monkeys are imported into the U.S. each year, according to a 2015 Bloomberg News report.
While monkeys are used in research they make up a small part of the animal population scientists use in their experiments, which generally have to be approved by a committee examining whether or not the experiments are ethical, McGee explained.
“They represent just 0.1% of research animals since most lab animals are mice,” he said. “In most countries, scientists will have to pass proposed experiments through an ethics committee which balances up possible harms against the possible benefits of the experiment.”
Signed over 40 years ago, CITES regulates or bans international trade in more than 30,000 animal and plant species. While it is legal to buy and sell macaques, CITES lists the species as one that could face extinction unless trade in the animal is closely controlled.
In 2006, primate experts thought there were about 3 million long-tailed macaques in world, a decrease of about 40 percent over the past quarter century.
Got an ID for that macaque?
In Laos, the long-tailed macaque population is small, meaning Lao monkey dealers are likely getting the animals from somewhere else, according to primate researchers.
According to an investigation by the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Conservation International, it is biologically impossible for Lao animal dealers to export all the macaques they claim were bred for sale.
“These macaques cannot be supplied from Laos, as the wild populations were limited in the southern-most area in Laos, but from nearby countries, such as Thailand and Cambodia,” wrote the Frankfurt researchers.
The decision by CITES to bar exports from Laos means that organizations based in the 181 countries that are parties to the convention are barred from purchasing macaques from Laos.
While Laos macaques are banned from CITES countries, buyers may not know that they are purchasing Lao animals as macaques are exported with no identification, or identification that is easily removed.
That makes it easy for dealers in other countries to disguise their true origins. While China exports around 12,000 macaques for research, it can be difficult to tell if they actually came from self-sustaining, purpose-bred colonies.
Long-tailed macaques “at breeding facilities in Lao PDR are not given a permanent means of identification such as a tattoo or a microchip,” the Species Survival Network wrote in a document filed with CITES. “Instead, facilities use neck tags which can easily be removed or replaced.”
Cruelty Free International investigators discovered that Chinese companies like to slap a “made-in-China” label on the macaques they export.
“In other words, buyers are to be led to believe that the [macaques] originated in China, despite having originated in Laos,” the organization wrote in its investigative report.
Wildlife business booms
Macaques make up just one part of a wildlife trade that is becoming one of the world’s top illicit activities.
Illegal wildlife dealing now follows counterfeiting and the illegal trafficking in drugs, people and oil as the fifth most lucrative illicit activity in the world, according to the Washington-based research and advocacy organization Global Financial Integrity. Some estimates peg the worldwide illicit animal business at nearly $20 billion a year.
In Laos, export of the macaques has been linked to the notorious Xaysavsng Network and its head Vixay Keosavang.
The Xaysang Network is thought to be the largest known wildlife trafficking syndicate in Asia, and the U.S. is offering a $1 million reward for information that will help dismantle the network. Vixay Keosavang has denied association with the wildlife trade.
While Vixay Keosavang denies his role in the illicit wildlife trade, the Xaysavang Trading Company is definitely in the monkey business. According to Cruelty Free International, the company was holding 575 of the primates when they inspected the company’s facilities.
Xaysavang isn’t the only monkey dealer operating in Laos. The Vientiane Xinling Scientific Development Company held around 650 of the primates, while the Bin Long 2 company held 1,000 with enough space for another 4,000. Xinling is a Chinese holding company.
“In 2012 the owner of Xaysavang Trading Company told field investigators that his company was involved in an unofficial trade in [long tailed macaques] exported to Vietnam,” the Species Survival Network told CITES. “This syndicate was involved in laundering thousands of illegally-traded [long-tailed macaques] from Cambodia into Vietnam through the Lao PDR with falsified permits.”
The same is true for China, Cruelty Free International told CITES.
“Field investigators were informed by managers and owners from each of the [long tailed macaque] from Laos are misrepresented as being of Chinese origin when exported to China,” the organization told CITES. “”The Chinese companies want to put a ‘made in China’ brand on the [macaques] prior to re-exporting them to Western countries.”
Inside the monkey cage
Life for a prospective laboratory macaque can be deadly even before any experiments are performed on the animal, according to animal rights activists.
Animal dealers aren’t spending a lot of money to make the macaques life bearable. Their welfare is often ignored as the concrete pens used to house the animals had little sanitation and little was done to mimic their natural habitat, the activists say.
“At Xaysavang Trading Company, there was a simple gutter system around the cages to collect run-off feces and urine, but the trough was stagnant, being full of a mixture of feces, rotting monkey chow, and a dark liquid,” according to a Cruelty Free International report to CITES. “The farm smelled putrid and could be sensed from quite a distance away.”
Cruelty Free International investigators were particularly critical of Xaysavang, saying the some of the macaques there “appeared to be starving to death” and “some were dead in their pens.”
Laos says it follows CITES
Vongdeuan Vongiharath, director general for forest resource management in Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Lao CITES team member, told RFA that they inspect the monkey farms to ensure they are CITES compliant.
“After inspection, if the farm has been operated in accordance with the trade principles it will be approved, but the breeding process must be certified in the criteria of CITES,” he said.
Vongdeuan Vongiharath told RFA that the Bolikhamxay Province monkey farm where Xaysavang Trading Company has its facility is an experimental operation.
“In Bolikhamxay province the macaque farm is controlled by the provincial relevant organization,” he told RFA. “To run a Macaque farm in Laos, the operators must be officially approved, but in Bolikhamxay province the farm has been a pilot project for study and research for years. However, the farm is not allowed to breed the monkey for export because it is for study and research.”
It’s unclear what the next step is for Laos.
“In case of the macaque in Laos we must take a look at if it is likely to be endangered,” Vongdeuan Vongiharath said. “We have never received the recommendations on macaque registration for endangered species. We wait and see if the animal committee will inform us of this issue.”
Reported and translated by Ouenkeo Souksavanh. With additional reporting by Brooks Boliek. Written in English by Brooks Boliek