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Monkey business between Sri Lanka and China put on hold

Simulating media coverage of questionable animal welfare often seems to require a convenient human enemy, notes Alasdair Mitchell

Rhesus macaque family

Rhesus macaque family

There’s been some monkey business going on between Sri Lanka and China. Or at least, there was plenty being planned, but it has now been put on hold. You may not have heard about it because, unlike trophy hunting, there are no supposedly wealthy hunters to be demonised in this story. From the perspective of the Western media, the lack of a convenient enemy seems to have devalued the item’s newsworthiness.

The gist of the story is that Sri Lanka was planning to export 100,000 live toque macaque monkeys to China. Why it wished to do this is unclear, although there is speculation that it was part of a deal to repay some of the huge amount of money that China has loaned to Sri Lanka to fund infrastructure developments.

The Sri Lankan government admitted that negotiations for the sale of monkeys had been ongoing, but after a backlash the Chinese government denied that it had any part in them. This may well be true, in that it was a private company that was negotiating. But you have to bear in mind that the division between the state and private commerce is not always clear-cut in China. The basic plan was to send a lot of monkeys in one direction and a lot of moolah in the other. Make of that what you will.

On display

What was China going to do with all those monkeys if it did get them? After reports of the proposed deal first surfaced, it was hastily claimed that the hapless primates were going to be sent to zoos in China. Now, collecting wild animals of any sort, let alone primates, and then putting them on display behind bars is no longer socially acceptable. It was at one time, of course.

It is easy to forget that Gerald Durrell’s early books consisted of tales of his early career capturing African animals for European zoos. He enthused a generation of youngsters about wildlife generally. The first one of his books that I ever read as a boy was called The Bafut Beagles, first published in 1954. It recounted his adventures on an expedition to collect wild animals in Cameroon. I was hooked. Yet I somehow doubt that book would get good reviews in the likes of The Guardian if it were published today as a contemporary account.

More to the point, it appears that China only has about 18 zoos. Some of them are alleged to be pretty shoddy, a far cry from the showcase panda breeding facilities that are deservedly world-famous. How feasible it is that ordinary Chinese zoos could house an average of more than 5,000 monkeys each? It seems likely that the zoo rumour was part of a smokescreen.

Darker rumours began to circulate. Some speculated that the monkeys would end up in China’s notorious ‘wet markets’, to be used as human food.

More plausible, perhaps, is the notion that they were going to be used for medical experimentation. There are very strict international restrictions on the use of primates for experimentation and it seems that the supply of laboratory-bred monkeys reaching China has all but dried up since Covid. Some calculate that the price of such animals has risen eightfold, to more than $2,000 each. If so, then the commercial value of 100,000 monkeys is not exactly peanuts, is it?

All primate species are strictly protected under international law. Toque macaques are globally endangered, being red-listed. Their range is restricted to Sri Lanka, but in that country they are relatively common. By some estimates, there could be as many as three million toque macaques in Sri Lanka, which covers a quarter of the area of the UK. The population density of the macaques has increased as their habitat has shrunk and their natural predators – such as pythons and wild cats – have declined. The monkeys are well adapted to living in close proximity to humans and are considered to be a serious agricultural pest. Yet there are currently no legal methods of controlling their population. Given this background, you can see why the Sri Lankan government might have been tempted to grant licences for the live capture and export of monkeys.

Here in the West, it may seem surprising that such a deal was even considered in the first place. I suspect that the story didn’t attract mass coverage from the usual media suspects over here because antis are more passionate about hating certain people than they are about loving animals.