Monkey trade on Mauritius island exists since 1985. Some 10,000 long-tailed macaques are exported to the United States and Europe every year for biomedical research. Many animal activists around the world protest against this legal trade in monkeys. Some deplore the conditions of living of the primates once they reach the destination country. Others accuse Mauritius of animal cruelty and encourage tourists to boycott the island as a touristic destination. As it currently stands, the long-tailed macaque features on the global list of ‘100 of the world’s worst invasive alien species’.
The long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis), also called the crab-eating monkey and the Cynomolgus monkey is native to south-east Asia. Eventually, people brought it into various places such as Mauritius, Hong Kong, Palau and parts of Asia. In fact, it is the only species of monkeys found in Mauritius. Dutch or Portuguese sailors most probably brought it from Sumatra or Java during the 16th century.
Basically, people view long-tailed macaque as a nuisance in most of its introduced range. In its natural environment, it has predators like leopards, sun-bears, panthers and pythons. Thus in introduced regions, authorities must manage the macaques carefully to prevent them from becoming invasive.
The monkeys have dark brown fur with lighter underparts. They are generally 38 to 55 cm tall and can weigh in between 3-9 kg. They also have a pinkish-brown face with a crest on the head top. As suggested by the name, they have very long tails.
The primates live majorly in dense forests, coastal and riverine forests but can also inhabit secondary forests. The long-tailed macaques feed mostly on fruits, plant-based materials and insects.
As with other creatures, long-tailed macaques form part of the world’s unique biodiversity. They help in dispersing seeds and consequently in the growth of plants and trees. Generally, they are pretty good swimmers and can travel long distances in search of food. They are sensitive primates that live in hierarchical societies and have intricate social relationships.
Interestingly, long-tailed macaques possess admirable intellectual properties. They can easily adapt to captive breeding conditions. The primates are also important species in biomedical research . For instance, as the monkeys have a longer lifespan compared to other creatures, they are ideal for ageing studies .
What’s more, monkeys, in general, are sacred to the Hindu community. They symbolize Hanuman, a God of Power, also known as the King of Monkeys.
The long-tailed macaque is a ‘Least Concern’ animal according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is, in fact, one of the world’s worst invaders. Broadly speaking, the primate complicates environmental conservation matters, especially regarding threatened organisms. Similarly, it also disturbs agricultural and farming operations. In many instances, it can also get into conflicts with humans by stealing food and belongings.
Globally, the exact number of long-tailed macaque monkeys that exits in the wild is unknown. This is mostly due to the fact that the animals are in no imminent danger. In countries where trade takes place, companies claim that it is in a sustainable manner. Monkey farms must adhere to stringent ISO protocols and hygienic recommendations for export.
When monkey trade began in the late 1980s, the population was estimated at 35,000 to 40,000 individuals . By 2009, the population reached 8,000 mostly due to export and habitat destruction. Today monkeys live mostly on the edge of forests and in fragmented forest areas. But the exact number of monkeys that currently inhabit Mauritius is unknown.
International wildlife trade is ongoing every day be it for food, medicine and accessories. Legal wildlife trade is the exchange of animals and plants with permits. Governing bodies oversee the trade locally and the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) does so internationally. Conversely, illegal wildlife trade refers to wildlife transaction without permits and is worth billions on the black market.
Primate trade involves the capturing and movement of hundreds of thousands of primates every year. Here, primate refers to the group of species related to lemurs, monkeys and apes. It excludes humans which are also considered as primates. The creatures play important roles in biomedical research. They are also useful in the entertainment industry or as personal pets.
Legal primate trade had economic returns of an estimated $ 138 M in 2015. Also, since 2015, China, Cambodia and Vietnam have become the top three exporters of live primates . Illegal trade in primates is suspected to be much higher. Nevertheless, no realistic estimate of the actual number of traded animals currently exists.
Mauritius exports long-tailed macaques to the United States and European countries for biomedical research annually. The trade is legal as per the CITES recommendations. The National Parks and Conservation Service (NPCS) of the Ministry of Agro-Industry and Fisheries acts as the management authority. The NPCS issues permits for exports as well as levy an additional export tax of $75 per animal. This money then goes into the NPCS’s conservation fund for species conservation and habitat restoration on Mauritius.
Animal activists vehemently oppose monkey trade in Mauritius as it is regarded as immoral and cruel. Many of these pressure groups are against the use of animals for biomedical research per se. They suggest the use of alternatives to find biomedical answers. In the same manner, the act of trapping and subsequent care is deemed cruel in many instances. The living conditions of the monkeys are also questioned. What’s more, monkeys are emotionally attached to their offsprings. Tearing them apart has severe psychological impacts on the primates.
In addition to this, monkey trade is restricted to captive-bred animals only. Generally, Mauritian trappers catch wild animals, breed them and export the first batch of offsprings. Ideally, captive-bred monkeys should mate with other captive-bred ones. The second generation of monkeys thus obtained is best for export.
Like so many countries around the world, long-tailed macaques are a nuisance in Mauritius.
The primates seriously wreaked havoc on the original flora and fauna of the island. Being introduced, the primates had no natural predators. As the years rolled by, the population grew unchecked. They consumed the seeds of native plant species thus preventing their regeneration. What’s more, they dispersed the seeds of exotic plants at various places throughout the native forest. As the seedlings grew, they competed with native ones for space and food to the detriment of the local ones.
Today still, such activities are ongoing. Monkeys destroy seedlings and damage the flowers and fruits of many native plant species. They also help in propagating exotic plants. Consequently, they have to stay away from conservation areas to allow vulnerable species to grow.
The long-tailed macaque is also known to have directly caused a decrease in the population of many endemic bird species. They damaged the forest, nests, eggs and chicks of now endangered birds like the pink pigeon and green parrot. In the same manner, they compete with native species for food. As it is, the extinction of the Dodo bird is partly related to the destructive nature of the long-tailed macaque monkey.
Long-tailed macaques also impact negatively on the agricultural sector. They destroy sugarcane and crops. Most of them directly feed on 20% of crops, others destroy seedlings and flowers. Farmers have used firecrackers and scarecrows to shoo them away but to no avail.
Monkey trade in Mauritius provides jobs to a number of people and brings in foreign currency. It also helps to keep the number of monkeys in check which otherwise would cause serious damage. All in all, it is a form of pest management strategy.
The Mauritian Cyno Breeders Association regroups all monkey breeders of Mauritius. They assert that local monkeys are highly reputed for their high quality . They are free from various diseases including the Herpes virus simiae which can be fatal to humans. Consequently, they are safe to work with. Likewise, Mauritius has established long term relationships with biomedical laboratories. Mauritian breeders strictly follow the animal care and recommendations of the importing countries.
The use of animals in biomedical research dates back to the 1600s. And opposition in using animals has been going on since then. Ethically, biomedical research on human diseases cannot be conducted on humans. Monkeys are thus essential organisms to test for the safety and efficiency of treatments as they share many features with humans. They possess similar characteristics as humans in development, reproduction, genetics and social complexity. As a matter of fact, they have an immunodeficiency virus like HIV which makes them ideal to study AIDS. To date, monkeys have helped enormously in understanding hepatitis, respiratory viral diseases, gene therapy and Parkinson’s disease.
Currently, rhesus macaques, another monkey species regarded as invaders, are being used in China for developing a coronavirus vaccine. Sinovac Biotech, a biopharmaceutical company, injected crippled viruses into the monkeys’ immune system. In this way, their immune systems can produce antibodies that will kill the normal viruses. So far, the test has proved effective. The hitch now is in finding human volunteers to test in the future.