Colombo, April 16: With Sri Lanka mulling over a Chinese proposal to import 100,000 “toque macaque” monkeys from the island to cater to 1000 zoos in China, some major environmental and nutritional issues have arisen. Experience overseas shows that environmental imbalances and nutritional deficiencies may follow indiscriminate exports of animals.

These will have to be considered before a decision is taken. Mercifully, the government is consulting experts, including legal experts, on this matter.

Firstly, the toque macaque monkey is on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is an endangered species. The government says that there is an “overpopulation” of monkeys in Sri Lanka. According to Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, there are 3 million of them in the island. Culling is urgently called for particularly because they have become predatory, attacking crops, home gardens and houses for food.

But Jaffna-based environmentalist Dr Murali Vallipuranathan contends that the total toque macaque population would not be more than 200,000. Given this estimate, the government’s plan to sell 100,000 to China would amount to reducing the toque macaque population in Sri Lanka by half.

However, the Minister pointed out that Sri Lanka has no law for the export of animals and therefore the legal aspect of the proposed export of monkeys will have to be studied.

Monkeys may be predators, but they could also be playing a useful role in preserving the ecological balance, says Dr Murali Vallipuranathan in an article in Colombo Telegraph. He highlighted the environmental damage that would be caused by a large-scale reduction of the toque macaque monkey population. And that could be very injurious to the environment.

“Toque macaques are involved in seed dispersing. A rapid decline of these monkeys may affect the spread of the plants feeding these monkeys. A rapid decline of macaques can lead to an increase in lizards and small birds because these monkeys are known to feed on them. On the other hand, leopards, fishing cats, pythons and mugger crocodiles are known to prey on these monkeys. A rapid decline of monkeys can lead these predators to look for alternative prey including domestic animals,” Vallipuranathan wrote. .

Global Trade in Monkeys and Wild Animals

Monkeys are extensively traded internationally, both legally and illegally. The main reason for the import of toque macaques by Western countries is research on drugs and vaccines because of their genetic and other similarities with humans. Vallipuranathan says that between 2000 and 2020, the US alone imported 482,000 monkeys.

According to Science Direct, more than five million tons of bush meat (meat of wild animals) were harvested each year from the African rainforest in 2011, impacting 500 species, mostly mammals.

Bush meat hunting has become a major threat to biodiversity in West and Central Africa, the journal says. While bush meat is an essential and  perhaps the only source of protein for the poor in rural Africa, its booming export and smuggling to other well-off countries have become a major source of worry.

In a piece in The Observer of the UK in 2002, Anthony Browne talked of “a horrific trade in apes and monkeys being sold as meat in Britain”. This was threatening chimpanzees and gorillas with extinction, he asserted.

“Scientists warn that the bush meat trade has become so large that much of the wildlife in the forests of Central and West Africa is threatened with extinction within decades. One species of monkey – the Miss Waldron Red Colobus – was eaten to extinction last year (2001), and conservationists say that at the current rate of consumption, gorillas, bonobos (pygmy chimps) and chimpanzees have only about 10 years left,” Browne said.  Indeed, the number of chimpanzees in the wild had fallen from 2 million a century ago to 110,000 in 2002.

In 2001 more than 15.1 tonnes of illegal meat was impounded at Heathrow Airport in London. A whole smoked monkey was selling in the London market for about £350. Bush meat was smuggled with officials turning a blind eye.

Causes Protein Deficiency

The large-scale export and smuggling of bush meat is depriving the poor in Africa of a traditional source of protein. By some estimates, bushmeat contributes 80–90% of the animal protein consumed in certain rural regions of West and Central Africa.

Beyond its nutritional contribution, bush meat also provides an important source of income where few alternatives exist, since it is easily traded, has a high value-to-weight ratio and can be preserved (dried) at low cost.

However, 11.3% of the total population of the world remains chronically undernourished. Nearly all of them (98%) reside in low-income areas, with at least one in four people in Sub-Saharan Africa presently lacking sufficient protein and calories for energy, says an FAO publication in 2014. Micronutrient deficiencies, coined as ‘hidden hunger’, affect about two billion people worldwide, the prevalence of which is similarly highest in developing countries.

At the other end of the spectrum, over one billion people are overweight and 475 million are obese, with most of these being in the developed world, according to the FAO in 2013. It is this population which benefits from bush meat export and smuggling, including the sale of monkey meat.

Main Cause is De-forestation 

Dr Vallipuranathan says that the basic reason for the monkey menace is extensive deforestation. Deforestation has led to the shrinking of the natural habitat of monkeys, leaving them no alternative to encroaching upon human habitats and eating up their resources.

“Sri Lanka has been undergoing extensive deforestation with successive political regimes destroying the forests under the name of development projects. In 2021 alone, it lost 13.3kha of natural forest,” he says.

He points out that a wrong impression has been created about an “explosion” in the monkey population. He calls upon environmentalists and zoologists to enlighten the public and also guide the authorities towards a sensible policy to avert an environmental disaster.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here