Born Free’s head of policy, Mark Jones said, “There always seem to be huge discrepancies between export and import data in these kinds of transactions”, continuing, “If the data the UK is collecting does not enable meaningful trend analysis, you have to wonder what its purpose is.”.
But this poor-quality data isn’t only a UK problem, the US is the biggest importer of long-tailed macaques, with other major buyers including the EU and Japan. Trade in macaques into the USA is similarly problematic.
Using the CITES TradeView website, the trade between 2013 and 2022 of ‘live’ Long-tailed Macaques shows some significant discrepancies. In total, over this period the USA reported it imported 196,536 Long-tailed Macaques, while exporting countries data states a total of 229,463 were exported to the USA, a discrepancy of 32,927 primates.
Setting aside for a moment the ethics of this trade, the scale of the export/import discrepancies, justifiably described as “through the roof”, show the most basic accounting reconciliations cannot be done. But this is a known issue for trade under CITES. Documentation problems leading to confiscations of imports at the US boarder aren’t new either.
Research showed that between 2003 and 2013, thousands of exotic leather goods were seized by U.S. law enforcement because of discrepancies in CITES paperwork. While this research was related to the fashion industry, with Ralph Lauren accounting for 29% of the seized items, Gucci (16%), Michael Kors (10%), Jil Sander (6%), and Coach (5%), obviously this pricked the nerve of other industries reliant on CITES listed species to maintain their profits.
But this didn’t lead to a modernisation of the CITES trade permit system, which was first discussed in 2002. Instead, this led to companies lobbying the US government to redact company names in any Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by those investigating this CITES listed trade in wild species. Undoubtedly companies realised that having their brands linked to reports of these confiscations could be detrimental to their reputations. So, together with submissions from the fashion and exotic pet industries, needless to say pharmaceutical companies lobbied hard under the guise of ‘in confidence’ exemptions.
Declarations were made by companies including Charles River Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Novartis all professing commercial harm from the disclosure of confidential information which impacts the companies research activities or otherwise gives competitors insight into the companies’ research and development. Additional declarations were made by Covance Laboratories, Tandem Labs, AbbVie, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, SNBL USA, Genetech etc. I am sure you get the picture. The Obama government gave these companies what they wanted, another layer behind which to hide.
It is too easy to say that evil prevails when good people do nothing, these systemic problems are too big and profitable for individuals and groups to challenge. Evil prevails when there are too few regulations and too few resources are in place to keep business and industry behaviour corralled and in-check. And, in the end, given trade is a key driver of biodiversity loss and pandemic risk, you could argue the public’s ‘right to know’ trumps ‘commercial in confidence’.
While governments of the world joined forces to deal with zoonotic diseases, those that spill over from wildlife into humans, they have done nothing to tackle the root cause, the exploitation of wildlife for profit.
As Simon Schama, professor of history and art history at Columbia University, New York, wrote in The Guardian, “The years since 1980 have seen outbreaks of new infections at a rate of one every eight months in hot zones from Brazil to central Africa to south-east Asia, most of them viral. They include the catastrophes of HIV and Ebola, as well as Sars and H5N1 bird flu. The routinisation of long-distance trade in animals has speeded up the pace of these contagions.”
As a result of the pandemic and, in turn, more donations to medical research, the trade in primates for the pharmaceutical industry has increased. A study by the University of Adelaide, stated the trading of macaques for research purposes could be increasing the chance of further pandemics. The researchers analysed the CITES Trade Database from 2000 to 2020 and found less than a third of the records about trade shipments of macaques contained both importing and exporting data. When there is no transparency, why should we be shocked that some people exploit the trade system for the worst kind of profiteering?
One author of the University of Adelaide study said, “Of most concern were the trade discrepancies reported between 2019 and 2020, when Cambodia significantly increased its exports of macaques, while China ceased all its exports,” ; China is traditionally one of the largest suppliers of macaques. China’s biopharma companies grew explosively between 2016 and 2021; their combined value on major stock exchanges rose from just $5 billion to $400 billion during that period, according to consulting firm McKinsey. They also began running far more clinical trials.
There have been ample warning signs that thousands of wild-caught monkeys are being illegally certified as captive-bred and used in clinical trials for new drugs and vaccines. The arrest of the director of wildlife and biodiversity for Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forest, and Fisheries, in November 2002 as he transited through the US on his way to the CITES CoP19 in Panama, is just another symptom highlights the scale of the systemic problems of wildlife trade regulation. He was charged with smuggling wild primates and remains under house arrest, awaiting trial.