Row over fate of endangered monkeys

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Look out: the law aimed at protecting Japan's threatened macaques is under discussion again.

Japanese researchers and animal-welfare activists are at loggerheads — again — over the treatment of wild monkeys that are captured, sold to laboratories and used for research in neuroscience and physiology.

The country's Environment Agency is preparing new guidelines on the treatment of Japanese macaques, for implementation in the new year. But neither researchers nor activists are happy with the agency's draft, which is open for public comment until 17 November.

The use of macaques in research is a long-running bone of contention in Japan (see Nature 393, 404; 1998). Although, as an endangered species, they are not on the list of animals that can be hunted, the monkeys can wreak havoc in farming communities, and local governments grant permission to 'remove' them when a damage claim is submitted. More than 53,000 have been collected in this way since 1993.

Problems arise after the monkeys are caught. Legally, those who capture monkeys must report only how many they have taken. Monkeys are either killed, put in a preservation park, or sent to research facilities.

According to the animal-protection group ALIVE (All Life in a Viable Environment), between 1,000 and 2,000 macaques end up in laboratories each year. In one case, a local government sent monkeys to a nearby medical school, but claimed to have put them in a preservation park. The transfer itself is not illegal, but misrepresenting the destination is.

“Although the exact legal framework to punish such violations is unclear, such cover-ups are an acknowledgement of law-breaking,” says ALIVE spokesman Fusako Nogami, adding that animals taken in this way should be off-limits for research.

The Japanese Society for Primate Research says that removed monkeys should be put down rather than used for medical research. But other scientific societies want the animals to be used in research. They claim that researchers follow strict guidelines on the care and testing of animals, in line with international standards.

The Environment Agency's draft is not legally binding, but it is likely to influence the application of binding laws, and is therefore being hotly debated.

The draft's most controversial phrase states that the monkeys may be used for “research on the ecology or health of the monkeys themselves”. Researchers fear that such a suggestion, along with pressure from animal-rights groups, will persuade judges to restrict research to this single case. They say that another proposal, requiring applications for removal to state the monkeys' fate after capture, would discourage local governments from giving macaques to research.

A representative for the Japan Neuroscience Society predicts that the supply of macaques would fall, raising their price from an affordable ¥150,000 (US$1,400) to a prohibitive ¥1 million. This, he says, would make research impossible for all but a few of the 40 or so laboratories currently working with monkeys.

The representative says that the Environment Agency's proposal underestimates the importance of the research, without which, he says, “we would know nothing about the human brain”. He considers that the guidelines should endorse the use of macaques in research.

Nogami counters that the removal of macaques is used to justify what has become a systematic procurement of monkeys for research. Since the World Conservation Union lists Japanese macaques as endangered, she adds, the guidelines should prohibit their use and lay out clearer rules for the punishment of transgressors.

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