We know that marmosets were imported for research purposes, but the Department of Agriculture declined in Senate Estimates to disclose the name of the company or institution that imported them or to specify the type of research the marmosets were used for. The Department argued that it was a matter for State and Territory jurisdictions.
When asked why the marmosets were imported, given that there is a colony in Australia specifically for breeding marmosets for research purposes, the Department replied that importers are not required to explain what they need animals for when applying for import permits.
When the methods through which non-human primates are sourced and brought to Australia cannot be properly scrutinised, it opens the door to practices that can harm conservation efforts and can increase the rate at which endangered species are depleted.
Last week I re-introduced a Bill to parliament to stop this practice altogether. The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Prohibition of Live Imports of Primates for Research) Bill 2015 amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to prevent the importation of live primates into Australia for research purposes.
The global wildlife trade is recognised as one of the greatest threats to biodiversity conservation. The major trade in non-human primates – as live specimens, as body parts or as meat – presents a significant risk to their conservation in the wild. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which Australia is a signatory, commits to ensuring that international trade in flora and fauna does not threaten their survival.
Wild-caught CITES specimens – including all non-human primates – may therefore not normally be traded. Despite this, between 2000 and 2009, Australia imported 640 macaques from Indonesia for research purposes, even though many breeds of this species are critically endangered. In the same period Australia also permitted the live import of 71 owl monkeys for research “breeding purposes”. This species is also listed on the IUCN red list as “although not necessarily now threatened with extinction may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”
One of the main sources of non-human primates to meet global demand is Southeast Asia. Since the 1970s Indonesia has been a major exporter of monkeys.
When India and then Bangladesh banned primate exports in the late 1970s, Southeast Asia became a major hub of wildlife trade. With its concurrent highest rate of tropical deforestation on the planet, the loss of its biodiversity has been described as an impending disaster.
The list of threats causing decimation of the world’s wild primates is a long and bleak litany which includes the trade in monkeys to supply the booming biomedical and pharmaceutical research industry.
Aside from the important issue of conservation, there are considerable questions surrounding the necessity and ethics of some of the experimentation that non-human primates are subjected to.
“Around the world, 100,000 to 200,000, non-human primates, or monkeys, are used in experiments every year.”
Around the world an estimated 100,000 to 200,000, non-human primates, or monkeys, are used in experiments every year, and tens upon tens of thousands of monkeys are traded around the world to meet the research industry demand. According to US Department of Agriculture figures, in the US alone the use of non-human primates in experiments rose from 57,518 in 2000 to 71,317 in 2010.
In 2009, a BUAV (British Union Against Vivisection) undercover investigation confirmed the IUCN’s and other scientists’ concerns, revealing Indonesia’s “official” ban on the export of wild-caught primates for research (in line with its CITES obligations) is a farce.
Monkeys were shown suffering high levels of cruelty during their capture, confinement and transportation, with an endpoint destination of experimentation in the world’s laboratories.
BUAV also found Indonesian wild-caught monkeys are coded as “captive-bred”. Monkeys wild-living on islands, such as Australia’s source island – Tinjil Island – are also coded as “captive-bred” because the whole island is described as a “breeding facility”.
The investigation also revealed monkeys trapped in inhumane conditions by villagers who view them as pests and ready income. Baby monkeys are taken from their trapped parents who are often killed rather than being released back into the wild. Mother monkeys are sometimes shot with air rifles forcing them to flee and drop their infants. Monkeys are chased by dogs to be entangled in nets or ropes which often strangled the trapped terrified animals.
The monkeys, including the infants, are then kept in filthy, crowded and barren concrete pens with metal grid floors lacking fresh air or sunlight, many with no access to water or food. In one primate breeding and supply facility infants were kept in small empty pens with smooth walls, no perches and only a wire ceiling, from which the scores of babies would hang frightened in the absence of safe shelter.
Monkeys are then transported around the world, sometimes kept in transit for days, packed into crates too small to stand up in, suffering the noise, inadequate ventilation and extreme temperature fluctuations. If there are transport delays, there is often insufficient food and water.
One UK primate import company alone had a mortality rate of nearly 19% of its delivered monkeys, all from Indonesia, during 1988-1991.
“64% of the Australian public do not believe that humans have the moral right to experiment on animals.”
Australia is the fourth highest user of animals for experimentation in the world. China, Japan and the United States are the top users.
A poll conducted by Nexus Research in 2013 found that 57% of the Australian public are aware that animals are still used in experimental research in modern Australia, and 64% do not believe that humans have the moral right to experiment on animals.
In the 2001 May Budget estimates, it was stated that the three Australian primate breeding facilities were established, among other reasons: “to remove the necessity to import these animals into Australia; and to protect these species in the wild by breeding them in captive colonies”.
There is considerable clinical evidence that much animal-based research correlates poorly with the human response. This is confirmed by scientific reviews that show correlations between the results of animal experimentation and human outcomes are negligible, expensive and unnecessary. Most animal experiments do not translate to clinical trials, are not validated, minimally cited, and use methodologies that render findings as unreliable.
For example, Bailey’s 2005 scientific critical review on research using animals came to the conclusion such findings “have little or no predictive value or application to human medicine.”
“There is considerable clinical evidence that much animal-based research correlates poorly with the human response.”
Further, a 2004 UK survey by Europeans for Medical Progress found 82% of general practitioners “were concerned that animal data can be misleading when applied to humans.”
Safer Medicines, a British patient safety organisation of doctors and scientists articulates the growing questions from a safety perspective: “whether animal testing, today, is more harmful than helpful to public health and safety” with “alarming evidence that animal tests fail to protect us” in areas from strokes, to AIDS, cancer, autoimmune diseases and more.
Knight’s 2007 review on animal experiments found published experiments on chimpanzees, as the species most closely related to human primates, have been shown to generate data of “questionable value” and to make insignificant contributions to cited research – with in vitro studies, human clinical and epidemiological studies, molecular assays and methods, and genomic studies contributing most to the development of combating human diseases.
Not surprisingly, this is because chimpanzees’ phenotype, that is their morphology and biochemistry, is markedly different to humans.
Yet with the progressive banning of testing on chimpanzees around the world, the research industry has turned to smaller non-human primates that are even more removed from the human phenome. Indeed in Australia, there are three government-funded facilities that breed non-human primates to be experimented on. This is despite cheaper and more scientifically reliable and valid methodologies and technologies already existing and being used by more and more laboratories around the world.
The Greens urge government, regulators and research institutions to practice these sophisticated and humane research methods. These include genomics, proteomics, nanotechnology, phage display, microdosing, microfluidic chips, epidemiology, autopsies, computer modelling deducing toxicity based on chemical structure of compounds, more thorough world research databases, and tissue and cell in vitro research such as the Ames Test.
“The Bill does not ban the use primates for research per se – the Greens acknowledge this is a separate issue that requires rigorous challenge.”
The Greens support the global scientific “3 R’s” principle of ‘replacement, reduction and refinement’. We see this Bill as a small but important step to take us beyond 19th century methods of animal experimentation and towards the more sophisticated and credible modern methods of biomedical research already being used with more accuracy and success today.
The Bill does not ban the use of primates for research per se – the Greens acknowledge this is a separate issue that requires rigorous challenge and examination. There are three government-funded facilities in Australia that breed primates for research. When this Bill was first introduced in November 2012, permits for the importation of live primates had been neither sought by these facilities, nor issued since 2009.
“This Bill, if passed, would confirm in law that Australia does not support the cruel and inhumane primate trade for experimentation.”
This Bill, if passed, would confirm in law that Australia does not support the cruel and inhumane primate trade for experimentation and that Australia will not participate in practices leading to the extinction of primates in the wild.
This is a small but important step on the long road to ceasing the cruel practices of experimentation on animals. Well over 10,000 people have previously signed a petition to call an end to the importation of primates for experiments, and I have no doubt that most Australians would be appalled that Australia still allows this to happen.
Sentient beings are being subjected to great suffering when unnecessary experiments are performed on them. This Bill can help relieve that suffering and deserves the support of all Australians.
Senator Lee Rhiannon is the Australian Greens Senator for NSW.
She is well-known for her energetic work in the environment and social justice movement over the last four decades and regularly campaigns on animal issues.