Hundreds of endangered monkeys are being taken from the African bush and sent to a “secretive” laboratory in Iran for scientific experiments.
An undercover inquiry by The Sunday Times has revealed that wild monkeys, which are banned from experiments in Britain, are being freely supplied in large numbers to laboratories in other parts of the world. All will undergo invasive and maybe painful experiments leading ultimately to their death.
One Tanzanian dealer, Nazir Manji, who runs African Primates, an animal-supplying company based in Dar es Salaam, said that in recent years he had been selling up to 4,000 vervet monkeys a year to laboratories, charging about £60 each.
Vervets are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Despite this they are being routinely caught and sold to any buyer prepared to pay.
Another Tanzanian dealer, Filbert Rubibira, was asked last year to prepare an order of monkeys to send to the Chinese military for “scientific purposes”. The deal was cancelled at the last minute for reasons that were unclear.
Rubibira told an undercover reporter posing as a buyer that the Cites office in Tanzania would sign permits regardless of what fate awaited the monkeys. “They don’t care about that,” he said. “If it’s for scientific, if it’s for the zoo, if the plane is accepted for transport they don’t care about that . . . The purpose is not a problem.”
Rubibira also indicated that he had no problem if the animals were to be used for cosmetics testing. He said: “We can ask the Cites officer to write [on the certificate] M for medical, scientific purposes, or T for trade purposes. whichever you want.”
Manji said scientists at the Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute in Iran had bought 215 vervet monkeys from him this year but he had become suspicious about their true motive, although he was still trading with them. They had “spent a lot of money” on getting the monkeys, even sending over scientists to check on each consignment.
“Iran is very secretive,” said Manji, who has been exporting monkeys for 22 years. “They said it [the monkeys] was for ‘our country’, for vaccine. [They said] ‘We don’t buy vaccine from anywhere; we prepare our own vaccine’.
“But I think they use it for something else. You know why? Because they don’t go on kilos. Iran wants [monkeys weighing] 1.5kg to 2.5kg, [but] 1.5kg for vaccine is not possible.”
Rubibira indicated that finding out what the Iranians wanted the monkeys for would be difficult. “They cannot say, you know. They are secretive. They wouldn’t tell the truth.”
The revelation will fuel speculation that the monkeys may be used for research involving biological weapons. Primates are typically used by scientists wishing to test both the effectiveness of germ warfare agents and defences against them.
The Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute, which has its headquarters in Karaj, near Tehran, has been accused in the past by an Iranian opposition group of conducting biological weapons testing.
According to US intelligence, the pharmaceutical industry in Iran has long been used as a cover for developing a germ warfare capability.
In 2005 the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Iran “continued to seek dual-use biotechnology materials, equipment and expertise that are consistent with its growing legitimate biotechnology industry but could benefit Tehran’s assessed probable BW [biological weapons] programme”. Earlier this year it reiterated this.
The Razi institute, which was established in 1925, does legitimate research but does not publicly list on its website the use of primates in any of its current projects. Other animals being used for experiments, such as guinea pigs and mice, are mentioned.
Animal welfare groups called for an immediate inquiry into the revelations. Will Travers, head of the Born Free Foundation, said the captured monkeys would endure “terror and suffering” followed by “possibly painful” experiments and then death.
He said: “Following this Sunday Times exposé, Born Free is calling on the Cites authorities based in Switzerland and the Tanzanian government to immediately investigate exactly what is going on.”
Michelle Thew, chief executive for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said: “The BUAV is appalled by the findings of The Sunday Times. The BUAV renews its call to governments such as Tanzania to protect its indigenous populations of primates and put an end to this unacceptable suffering.”
Vervet monkeys, like most other primates, are classed in the Cites appendix II, which stipulates that all the species listed “although not necessarily now threatened with extinction may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation”. In practice this means that dealers are legally able to sell thousands every year.
However, the use of all wild-caught monkeys in experiments has effectively been banned in Britain since 1997 and the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo-Smith-Kline, which produces a quarter of the world’s vaccines, has also stopped using them.
The European Commission is reviewing a directive on the use of animal experiments in Europe which may lead to an EU-wide ban on wild monkeys being used.
The monkeys are caught, or “harvested”, by men who first herd them into a tree at dusk.
The catchers then lay a 200m net below the tree and, at daybreak, scare the monkeys out of the branches and into the trap.
Then they are transported 250 miles overland from the main trapping grounds in Arusha near the Kenyan border to Dar es Salaam.
On arrival at Manji’s holding farm, where he can accommodate up to 1,000 monkeys at one time, they are transferred into tiny metal cages where they often remain for several weeks. They are then flown in wooden rates on Air Zimbabwe planes to countries such as Iran.
It is unclear exactly which type of vaccine the Razi scientists are claiming to be using the vervets for, but the World Health Organisation guidelines on the production of polio vaccine state that vervet monkeys used for testing it should weigh a minimum of 1.5kg.
However, the monkeys’ kidney cells can also be used to produce the vaccine, in which case the weight is not relevant.
Nobody from the institute was available to comment.