The Sri Lankan Minister of Agriculture, Mahinda Amaraweera, recently announced that the government is considering a Chinese proposal to import 100,000 “toque macaque” monkeys from Sri Lanka for 1000 zoos in that country.

Since the toque macaque monkey is on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an endangered species, the news about its export raised eyebrows among conservationists.

According to Amaraweera, Sri Lanka has a population of 3 million toque macaque monkeys, which have been causing enormous damage to crops. Efforts to control their population have failed. Hence the decision to consider the Chinese offer to buy 1,00,000 of them, he said.

The Minister also 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 taken into account. He added that the entire gamut of issues related to the export of the said monkey species and its environmental impact will be considered by experts before a final decision is taken.

The Minister told the website Mongabay that nearly 100 million coconuts are destroyed by monkeys and giant squirrels each year, causing a loss of about US $19.3 million. He quoted from a report on crop losses due to wild animals done by the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute in Colombo. If the damage caused by all the wild animals is put together, it would amount to the equivalent of US$ 87.5 million, the report said.

Monkeys’ depredations go well beyond crop damage. They enter houses and steal food from kitchens, with the result, residents have to keep doors and windows shut all the time in some areas, including the outskirts of Colombo.

Asked about sterilisation, Ashoka Dangolla of the veterinary faculty at the University of Peradeniya said that it would be an uphill task but would be a good long-term solution.

Minister Amaraweera said that monkeys and five other wild creatures which destroy crops could be killed. The list includes peacocks, monkeys, grizzled giant squirrels, porcupines, and wild boars.

But environmentalists warn of the deleterious consequences of indiscriminate and unscientific control measures. While monkeys may be predators, they play a useful role in preserving ecological balance.

Writing in ‘Colombo Telegraph’, environmentalist Dr. Murali Vallipuranathan highlighted the environmental damage that would be caused by a large-scale reduction of the toque macaque monkey population.

According to Vallupuranathan, it is a gross exaggeration to say that the toque macaque monkey population is 3 million. It is unlikely to be no more than 200,000, he contends. And sending away 100,000 of them to China would mean reducing their population by half! And that could be deleterious for 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,” he warns.

The Chinese demand for monkeys is not unusual. 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 for experimental purposes.

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.

Bushmeat 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 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 bushmeat 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. According to Browne, a whole smoked monkey was selling in the London market for about £350.

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

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

Approximately 11.3% of the total population of the world) are chronically undernourished. According to a 2014 FAO report, nearly all of them (98%) reside in low-income areas. And at least one in four people in Sub-Saharan Africa are presently lacking sufficient protein and calories. Micronutrient deficiencies, coined as ‘hidden hunger’, affect about two billion people worldwide, the prevalence of which being 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.

Dr. Vallipuranathan said that the more sensible way of tackling the monkey problem is to prevent deforestation. Deforestation has led to the shrinking of the natural habitat of monkeys, leaving them no alternative but to encroach on human habitats and eat up their resources.

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