In Lucrative Primate Trade, Enforcing the Law Makes Industry Cry Foul

Recent developments regarding imports of endangered long-tailed macaques for experimentation underscore the role that financial incentives play in the primate trade, and shed new light on industry efforts to keep the import pipeline open.

photo by Tunatura
photo by Tunatura

In the latest example, the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR)—an industry-funded animal research lobbying group—filed a petition in June with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) challenging IUCN’s reclassification of long-tailed macaques as “endangered.” 

NABR is interested in IUCN classifications because they strongly influence wildlife trade restrictions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The United States, a party to this treaty, applies CITES criteria in deciding whether and how it will allow imports of CITES-listed species such as the long-tailed macaque. 

A damning chronology

In February, Charles River Laboratories (CRL), the largest user of monkeys for experimentation, disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had “denied clearance to certain shipments” of nonhuman primates from Cambodia to CRL. Shortly thereafter, NABR posted on its website a link to a February 13 letter from the USFWS to a company (whose name was removed), stating that the agency was denying the company’s application to import long-tailed macaques because (after over two months of review) it could not confirm the monkeys were captive-born, as required under CITES. 

NABR used this letter to allege a fundamental change in US import policy. In reality, the USFWS was enforcing existing US policy on a specific, questionable shipment. The agency confirmed this to Science magazine in May, pronouncing that it “has not implemented any new policies banning the importation or exportation of non-human primates” (emphasis in original).

In its February 13 letter, the USFWS noted that its decision was informed by the federal indictment in November 2022 of eight people, including two Cambodian wildlife officials, alleging an international conspiracy to smuggle thousands of Cambodian long-tailed macaques who had been fraudulently listed as captive-born into the United States for experimentation. (See AWI Quarterly, winter 2022.) The USFWS spearheaded the years-long criminal investigation that led to the indictment.
Two weeks after that indictment, CRL told the SEC that it had no direct supply contracts with the Hong Kong–based supplier entangled in the alleged conspiracy. Science subsequently reported that Inotiv—which advertises itself as the world’s “largest and most trusted source of nonhuman primates” (and describes the monkeys it sells in a “product sheet”)—had received the allegedly laundered monkeys, and that employees of its principal supplier had been named in the indictment. Inotiv has reported to the SEC multiple federal grand jury subpoenas relating to primate imports. It delayed reporting its financial results—which included $140 million (a quarter of all company revenue) from the sale of Cambodian monkeys—because of the need to assess the ramifications of the indictment.

On February 17—four days after the USFWS rejected the unidentified company’s shipment because it could not confirm captive-born status—CRL received a subpoena from the Department of Justice related to its monkey imports from Cambodia. CRL (which lists the animals it sells under “products-services”) disclosed the subpoena during an earnings call and announced it was suspending nonhuman primate shipments from Cambodia “at this time.” Afterwards, a stock analyst estimated that this pause could cost CRL $80 million to $160 million in sales. 

On February 27, NABR issued a “crisis” action alert—claiming that 60 percent of the preclinical nonhuman primate models critical to “the pipeline for lifesaving medical advancements” were being denied import permits. NABR’s alert doesn’t mention that Cambodia is the source of approximately 60 percent of primate imports, nor does it acknowledge the serious charges in the indictment or the impact on research integrity if wild-born primates are being smuggled in under falsified paperwork. Separately, NABR criticized the USFWS for not issuing any public notice regarding the import denials—which, again, was not a change in policy. 
On June 15, after its pressure on the USFWS failed to produce an actual change in policy, NABR filed its petition with IUCN—15 months after IUCN reclassified long-tailed macaques as “endangered.”

Money talks, but NASEM stays mum

In IUCN’s March 2022 assessment that these monkeys are endangered—warning that they could become extinct in 50 years—it stated that research demand was “threatening the species” and that the “research industry needs to become accountable.”
In May 2023, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released a 248-page report on primate research and supply. Data from the report indicate that, in fiscal year 2021, more than 42 percent of labs that used or held primates were for-profit entities—by far the largest category. AWI’s analysis of more recent data shows that CRL alone accounted for 23 percent of all such use, experimenting on over 16,000 monkeys. The top two users—CRL and Labcorp—accounted for 33.6 percent and reported almost $19 billion in revenue between them. 
When the NASEM report was published, AWI criticized the organization for failing to address financial incentives. Inotiv and CRL—the largest supplier and largest user of monkeys in research, respectively (and the top two suppliers of all animal species for research)—have garnered hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue relating to the trade in monkeys from Cambodia. Overall, the trade in long-tailed macaques has been valued at over a billion dollars—and that was before the COVID pandemic, when prices skyrocketed. As the alleged criminal conspiracy aptly illustrates, the allure of big money can put big pressure on endangered wildlife. 

NABR represents the interests of multiple industry players, but in CRL’s case, the bond runs particularly deep: NABR’s board of directors has for years included CRL’s vice president for global procurement, and CRL played a foundational role in the creation of NABR. CRL was also listed last year at the highest donor tier of “Benefactor” ($50,000 to $100,000) for NABR’s sister organization, the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR). All listed “Benefactors” have supplied, or experimented on, nonhuman primates. (NASEM invited Matthew Bailey—president of both NABR and FBR—to its public meeting in August 2022 and cited his presentation in its report. Tellingly, NASEM did not invite any animal protection organizations.)

NABR is correct about a “crisis,” but not the one it claims. NABR apparently believes that if the industry filling its coffers has issues with endangered species protections, then those protections should be gutted. The chronology outlined here—indictment to blocked shipments to CRL subpoena to “crisis” alert to pressuring the USFWS to IUCN petition—speaks volumes. It exemplifies why financial incentives must be addressed to save these endangered monkeys from extinction.