The government is refusing to align with an EU plan to halt imports of the offspring of wild-caught macaque monkeys for medical research.
It has prompted claims the UK is complicit in a “cruel” trade in wild animals that risks sparking and spreading new diseases.
More than 1,140 live long-tailed macaques were imported from Mauritius last year for medical research, according to government figures.
All were captive-bred and were imported for biomedical research, but it’s thought some would have been the offspring of parents captured in the wild.
Before Brexit, the EU decided to bring in a ban – due to be implemented next year – on imports of such offspring for scientific research.
Sarah Kite, co-founder of Action for Primates, said it was disappointing the government seemed unwilling to dissociate itself completely from the wild-caught trade.
“By continuing to do business with Mauritius importing these monkeys, the UK is perpetuating the cruel trade in wild-caught primates,” she said.
“The European Union has recognised that the capture of non-human primates from the wild is highly stressful for the animals and carries an elevated risk of injury and suffering during capture and transport.
“At a time when the EU is ending the use of wild-caught non-human primates and first-generation offspring in research, it is incongruous that the UK should be importing monkeys from a country that is not only condoning the cruelty and suffering inflicted by the wild-caught trade, but is also allowing it to expand.
“Our concern is that Mauritius is allowing the trapping of wild monkeys to be used for breeding purposes, as well as for export.”
She said transporting the animals around the globe increases the risk of novel viruses emerging and spreading.
Mauritius is the main supplier of monkeys to the UK and Europe for research although some are also imported from Vietnam.
UK ministers insist primate testing is needed to develop new human medicines.
Last year Mauritius exported 10,827 long-tailed macaques worldwide, Ms Kite said – a 40 per cent increase on 2019. Most were sent to the US.
One primate-breeding company in the country has been granted permission to expand from keeping 800 monkeys at any one time to 7,500, including the capture of up to 1,000 monkeys from the wild.
Macaques, which are not native to Mauritius, are considered a “pest” species there, although globally they have been officially classified as vulnerable.
A monkey-breeders’ organisation says conservation authorities consider the animal “a nuisance to the environment”.
But Ms Kite said: “It is in the interests of those who benefit commercially from the primate trade for the people of Mauritius to have a negative attitude towards the macaques, to view them as a problem, and trapping and killing as solutions.”
UK government statistics show 1,700 primates were used for the first time in lab animal experiments last year, including 1,423 long-tailed macaques.
The tests included toxicity ones, to monitor the adverse effects of daily dosing with drugs or chemicals.
The Understanding Animal Research organisation says that non-human primate research has contributed to significant progress in areas of medicine such as treatments for HIV, high cholesterol and viruses in humans.
Last month Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said in a written answer: “The UK legislation presently requires that all non-human primates used in research are bred specifically for research, so wild-caught animals cannot not be used for procedures.
“Establishments that have a licence to breed other primate species must have a strategy in place to increase the proportion of primates bred from primates bred in captivity.”
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “Now that we have left the EU, the government is committed to improving our already world-leading standards, such as through our action plan for animal welfare. We have also introduced a bill to recognise animal sentience in UK law.
“Animal research is carried out only where no practicable alternative exists. The small number of procedures carried out on animals are crucial for the development of new medicines that are safe to use and to find treatments for cancer and other diseases, as well as developing cutting-edge medical technologies.”
This article by Jane Dalton was first published by The Independent on 6 August 2021. Lead Image: More than 1,140 long-tailed macaques were imported from Mauritius last year for research (Getty Images).
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