Orphaned Monkeys Saved From Illegal Meat Trade

Sara Goudarzi
for National Geographic News
May 15, 2006
In April 2005 Karen Killmar, associate curator of mammals at the San
Diego Zoo, received of one the most unusual phone calls of her life. A
man on the phone wanted to know how much monkeys are worth as pets in
South Africa.

Killmar was immediately alarmed.

"I refused to do that," Killmar said.

"Number one because we don't put a market value on animals, and [number two] we don't want to create a market for them. I told him even if I had prices, I wouldn't give that to him."

But when the man told her what he had—33 monkeys of 5 different species—Killmar thought there might be a chance to give the monkeys a better home at zoos in the U.S.

"They were species that we worked with," Killmar said. "Certainly some new animals would help keep our populations healthier."
The man on the phone was a South African businessman who had dealings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (See Congo map).

There he found monkeys on sale at local bush-meat markets, where wild animals are sold as food.

Knowing what fate awaited the animals, the man bought 33 of the monkeys, built a quarantine facility, and tested them for diseases so they could be imported legally into South Africa.

"He went through quite a bit of effort to get these animals moved into South Africa," Killamar explained.

When Killmar received the man's phone call, she started to consider finding homes for the monkeys in U.S. zoos to save the animals from being sold as pets.

The orphaned monkeys, ranging from one to five years old, arrived in the U.S. in March and are now housed in six zoos around the country.

So far, all of them seem to be liking their new homes.

"They're having a great time," Killmar said. "[They're] young animals. Kids are flexible."

Bush-Meat Trade

The monkeys' tale has brought new attention to Africa's bush-meat trade—the illegal commercial sale of wild species for human consumption.

(See a photo of a hunter with bush meat.)

"Many animals are taken to satisfy cultural traditions," said Grey Stafford, director of conservation and communications at Wildlife World Zoo in Liltchfield Park, Arizona. The zoo houses two female black mangabeys that were among the 33 Congolese monkeys.

"In some cases [animals sold in bush-meat markets] are used in folk medicines, exotic cuisines, as novelty items, or are integrated into the pet trade."

The bush-meat trade is most prevalent in western and central Africa. It has become a significant problem in areas where logging and mining operations have escalated.

Supplies are often scarce at such remote outposts, so workers frequently go hunting in the wild in search of food.

Now hunting bush meat has become a way to make extra money. The meat is not only being used to feed workers but is also being hauled into large cities for wealthy people who are looking for a delicacy.

"It was a cheap source of protein, now it's a source of profit," Killmar said.

Controversial New Trade?

But the story of the Congolese monkeys' rescue has many experts questioning if there will be a new market for wild animals—among those looking to save the creatures from the dinner table.

"No, we don't want to create a market in that sense also," Killmar said.

"If there's a process in the [Congo] that would allow us to get [animals] without the exchange of money, then yes [we would do that]."

Some say that even a one-time rescue, like that made by the South African businessman, harms the progress of curbing the bush-meat trade.

Of particular concern among such critics is adherence to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

CITES works to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten the species' survival.

"This [sale of the Congolese monkeys] is a totally crooked deal under CITES, a laundering exercise, and totally counterproductive in terms of conservation," anti-bush-meat activist Karl Amman said.

"It makes a mockery out of the convention and anybody who really tries to do something about the bush-meat trade."

But the nonprofit American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) argues that the primates had already been taken out of the bush-meat market and imported into South Africa before U.S. zoos became involved.

Once Killmar at the San Diego Zoo was alerted to the animals' plight, the AZA decided to give them homes in accredited zoos rather than to allow them to be sold into the pet trade.

"This was truly a unique situation where all the pieces fell into place thanks to some dedicated zoo professionals," Stafford, of WildlifeWorld Zoo, said.

"When you peel away all the secondary considerations and long-term benefits to public education and species propagation, this was fundamentally about helping 33 young animals live a better life," he said.

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