Port Louis — Some 10,000 macaque monkeys, considered a nuisance in Mauritius, were exported last year to the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan to be used in medical research.
For Mauritians, the sale of the monkeys (macaca fascicularis) generated foreign exchange and provided jobs to about 1,000 people. But European animal rights activists have protested against the trade in monkeys for research purposes, organizing campaigns to urge tourists to boycott the island as a holiday destination.
"Monkeys are not indigenous to Mauritius," says Gerald de Senneville, CEO of Noveprim, one of the six firms engaged in the business of breeding and exporting the primates. Noveprim has been operating for 17 years.
The animal was introduced to the island between the 16th and the 17th centuries. It was probably brought from the Indonesian peninsula by Dutch sailors.
"The monkeys are certainly a nuisance from a conservation point of view," exclaims Jacques Julienne, executive director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF). They eat birds' eggs, kill small and adult birds alike and attack indigenous plants.
"Endangered species like the Pink Pigeon, the Echo Parakeet and even the Kestrel are regular victims of monkeys. Their impact on our forests is disastrous," adds MWF conservation manager Vikash Tattayah.
Capturing the monkeys and exporting them is beneficial to the environment and to indigenous species, he argues. "We spend lots of money on the restoration of indigenous bird species. It is frustrating to see the nests and baby birds destroyed by monkeys and rats," Tattayah declares.
He adds that there is no evidence that monkeys face extinction in Mauritius because of capture and export.
The government charges 70 dollars per exported monkey which is deposited in the National Parks and Conservation Fund to be used in the funding of conservation projects. The money in the fund is specifically used for the enhancement of endemic fauna and flora.
Farmers also blame monkeys for the destruction of sugar cane plantations and crops. "They eat around 20 percent of our production, thieves take 10 percent and 15 percent are destroyed by pests and insects. What is left for the farmers?" asks Tunraz Rampall. He heads the Mauritius Agricultural Marketing Cooperative Federation (MAMCF).
Earlier, farmers used fire-crackers, red flags and scarecrows to frighten them. It worked for a while but when the monkeys discovered that these objects could do them no harm, they were back in the fields.
The government's chief agricultural officer, Lewis Prayag, affirms that the industry contributes to controlling the monkey population in the wild. There are too many monkeys -- between 40,000 and 60,000. Reducing their number is the only solution to provide some respite to people affected by them, he states.
IPS visited the monkey breeding farms of two companies, Noveprim and Bioculture, in southern Mauritius. The enterprises are following sanitary and environmental norms. Prayag explains that before starting operations, the farms have to be approved by him as agricultural officer and by his veterinarians. They visit the farms regularly.
Breeding monkeys are captured in the wild, in nearby forests and mountains, by special teams of trained trappers between September and December when food is rare in the wild. "We trap them in the best possible way, so as not to make them suffer," according to Mary-Ann Griffiths, a biologist at Bioculture.
The captured animals are brought to the farm where they are checked for diseases such as tuberculosis. If found fit for breeding, they are kept in quarantine where they are cleaned and fed. Afterwards, they are taken to their quarters for breeding purposes.
Eight to twelve months later, they give birth. Two years later, the small monkeys are quarantined, checked for diseases and then exported.
During IPS's guided visit, mangers and various types of games could be seen inside the cages. The tiled floors are cleaned daily and the cages are maintained by trained staff.
The animals are fed specially prepared food and fruits and vegetables. Veterinarians do regular checks on their health. The breeders' clients, the pharmaceutical companies, also audit the farms.
One cannot enter the monkeys' quarters easily. Only authorised people wearing special clothes, gloves and masks are allowed. A blood test is also carried out first to ensure that visitors do not carry any virus that may contaminate the monkeys.
Each monkey has a personal dossier with data ranging from its birth until its export to the laboratories.
"Our monkeys are clean, free of disease and a first choice animal. That is why they are popular with the research laboratories," insist Noëlle Courrege, head of the research and development team at Noveprim.
"It is utopian to believe that research can be carried out on cells and tissues. They do not give the same results. Should we stop the progress of medicine?" asks Courrege.
The business of capturing, breeding and exporting monkeys from the island brought more than 20 million dollars to Mauritius in 2006, according to the country's agro-industry minister, Arvin Boolell. About 6,8 million dollars were made from the trade between January and May this year.
"The real figures are not known but I understand that a mature captive bred monkey may fetch about 3,000 dollars and a feral monkey about 1,200 dollars," Boolell adds.
The monkey exporting industry will develop further, according to Owen Griffiths, owner and director of the company Bioculture. "The industry has a lot of potential in Mauritius and it could help to create other related industries, such as bringing research laboratories to the island," he says.
Boolell emphasises that the government is allowing it because it generates jobs and brings foreign revenue to the country. Operators are requested to handle the primates in a humane way. "We reserve the right to ban the practice should we not be satisfied with the intended use of the monkeys," he affirms.
So far, Bolell adds, there have been no adverse reports on the use of the monkeys apart from the protests by animal rights activists in Europe.
A senior researcher at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a US-based NGO, Alka Chandna wrote to Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam on August 15 this year, asking him to help put a stop to medical research on primates by ending their exportation and introducing protective legislation.
"Macaque monkeys have shown impressive intellectual abilities. These highly sensitive animals will suffer unimaginable physical abuse and psychological torment in American laboratories.
"They will be caged and deprived of fresh air, sunshine, freedom of movement, the companionship of others and just about everything else that makes any life worth living," she wrote.
The US's Animal Welfare Act requires that research facilities provide enough enhancement and socialisation to promote the psychological well-being of primates.
But, according to her, PETA's investigations inside laboratories indicate that too often facilities do the absolute minimum or nothing at all to comply with this congressional mandate.
"Consequently, the animals experience high levels of stress, anxiety, boredom and fear," Chandna said.
After decades of experiments on animals, she added, "we have no cure for cancer, no cure for AIDS, no cure for Alzheimer's, no cure for Parkinson's disease, no cure for cystic fibrosis, and the list goes on".