Monkey breeding is big business

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2007, 12:00am

Soaring demand from US scientists spurs boom in raising primates

Xie Liping politely turns down a request to visit the core of her primate breeding centre in Nanning, saying the reason is purely technical.

'We must ensure the monkeys are not contaminated by humans,' said Ms Xie, the owner of Guangxi Weimei Bio-Tech Company.

Ms Xie runs one of the biggest primate breeding centres in Guangxi, a region that produces half of the nation's monkeys used for experiments.

She started four years ago with fewer than 100 crab-eating macaques and now has more than 12,000. When a huge expansion project - covering the equivalent of 31 soccer fields - is completed next year, 50 barracks wrapped in shiny steel bars will be home to 20,000 monkeys.

The Weimei breeding centre is one of the many rapidly growing number of farms on the mainland for raising monkeys, with most centres found in Guangxi and Guangdong. Stimulated by soaring demand from US bio-defence programmes, supported by mainland governments of various levels and heavily funded by profit-seeking private investors, the scale of primate farms on the mainland has tripled within half a decade.

Among Weimei's 12,000 monkeys, 3,000 will be selected, quarantined and sold to the US this year.

In 2005, about half of the crab-eating macaques and all of the rhesus monkeys - the two primates most commonly used in experiments - imported into the US came from the mainland, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) says. This makes the mainland the biggest monkey exporter in the world and a key supplier of the US 'war' against bio-terrorism.

The US bio-defence programme had spending of about US$300 million in 2001. A year later, it jumped to more than US$3 billion. In 2005, it reached US$7.6 billion - about the same as Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

A large share of the money has gone into developing vaccines for viruses such as Ebola, Lassa and anthrax and, to reduce cost and save time, the US allows the stockpiling of new drugs if the treatment is effective in two different animal models.

'At least one of the animal models should be a non-human primate,' Jean Patterson, chair scientist of virology and immunology at Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in Texas, wrote in a 2004 academic paper.

'The need for non-human primates is expected to grow enormously as vaccines and therapies against biological weapons and emerging diseases are developed.'

The number of crab-eating macaques imported by the US each year rose from 14,778 in 2001 to 27,270 in 2005, according to Cites. The mainland's annual exports of crab-eating macaques to the US rose from 3,266 to 12,878 over the same period.

The price of a monkey used for experiments on the international market rose from 1,500 yuan to 20,000 yuan. Monkeys of higher quality can be sold for higher prices on international markets. That's why Ms Xie quit her job at a science institute and started Weimei.

She said monkey rearing had a long history on the mainland and a great deal of knowledge and experience had been accumulated, especially over the past decade. She said that with a balanced diet of grain and fruit, space for exercise and cells that are cleaned regularly, it was not difficult to keep monkeys healthy, happy and hygienic, whether they numbered in the thousands, or tens of thousands.

'Our greatest challenge is to ensure the quality of our monkeys while satisfying our customers' growing demand,' she said.

Most of the farm's income comes from exports. Ms Xie uses whatever money is left over after running the centre on upgrading software and infrastructure.

The centre's goal is to have a complete pedigree and health-check record for each monkey sold. International buyers are keen to know the animals' genetic background because it makes their experiments easier. Monkeys with good records are almost twice as valuable as those without.

To encourage exports, officials have helped farms improve the quality of their primates.

The central government got the ball rolling in 2002 with the release of the nation's first primate-breeding standards. Beijing, Hubei and Guangdong provinces followed a year later, publishing their own, more detailed, guidelines.

Similar work started in Guangxi in 2004, and since then its government had invested 12 million yuan a year in research and development of primate breeding, said Wei Gang , director of experimental animal affairs at Guangxi's Department of Science and Technology.

The regional government provided cheap breeding technology to all monkey farms in Guangxi.

Guangxi's eight registered farms housed about 40,000 monkeys last year. Mr Wei expects the number will be significantly higher this year because all the farms are expanding and several new breeding centres have just filed applications for production licences.

Before licensing requirements came into effect in 2001, only the Chinese Academy of Sciences and some research institutes had regulations covering such programmes and there was no overall body responsible for monitoring private breeding centres.

'It was a mess ... the monkey centres were small, shabby and filthy, not much different from chicken farms,' Mr Wei said. 'Some even bought wild species on the black market and sold them as domestic pets.'

Crab-eating macaques and rhesus monkeys are endangered species on the mainland and protected by law.

Authorities cracked down on illegal markets, hired scientists to help the farms solve technical issues, provided low-interest loans and even leased land cheaply for farm expansions.

'The results are apparent,' Mr Wei said. 'Our monkeys are growing in both quantity and quality. You can find proof in export records at customs, and in the rapidly climbing price.'

The monkeys in Guangxi are also sold to the European Union, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Breeding requires comparatively small investments and has low risk while offering big returns fast. Several venture capital firms had invested 20 million yuan in Guangxi's large breeding centres, Mr Wei said.

'Our hope is to make experimental animal breeding a pillar industry in Guangxi,' he said.

But the revenue from the mainland's industry is dwarfed by the research sector overseas.

A staff member at the China Laboratory Primates Breeding and Development Association said monkey breeding was at the lowest end of the experimental animal-testing business, an industry that generated billions of US dollars every year.

He said the money earned by mainland monkey farms was a pittance compared with the income of laboratories working under contract with the US government or pharmaceutical companies. 'Twenty monkeys cost just US$40,000. But a toxicology test is worth a million dollars.'

Top five species imported from around the world into US, 1995-205

Crab-eating macaque 160,970

Rhesus monkey 16,507

Squirrel monkey 2,940

Common marmoset 2,240

Olive baboon 1,731