Big Money Talks in Fight to Save Endangered Monkeys from Extinction

Long-tailed macaque
Photo by Tunatura

As the IUCN weighs an industry-backed petition to abandon its current “endangered” designation for long-tailed macaques in favor of a “vulnerable” designation with fewer protections for the species, a new scientific study finds that wild long-tailed macaque populations have declined by 80% over the past 35 years.

Washington, DC—This month, a committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is scheduled to determine whether long-tailed macaques (LTMs) should continue to be classified as “endangered” on its Red List of Threatened Species, a decision that could either reinforce hard-won protections or ease restrictions for the lucrative primate trade.

LTMs, also known as crab-eating macaques, face unprecedented threats to their survival, and one major factor is accelerating demand from the biomedical research industry.

In September 2023, the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), an industry-funded, pro-animal-research lobbying group, formally petitioned the IUCN to strip LTMs of their “endangered” designation. IUCN classifications strongly influence protections afforded to listed species, including wildlife trade restrictions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which the United States is a party.

For 15 months, NABR has campaigned to ensure the import pipeline for LTMs remains open, arguing that the IUCN (a global authority on conservation issues) “did not reach objective scientific conclusions” when it designated the primates as endangered in 2022. In the peer-reviewed assessment accompanying the endangered designation, the IUCN warned that LTMs “will experience at least a 50% decline in the coming three generations,” or just over 40 years, adding that the “research industry needs to become accountable” for its effects on wild primate populations.   

NABR is the mouthpiece for that same industry. Founded in 1979 and based in Washington, DC, the association received more than $1.3 million in member dues in 2021, the most recent year for which data are available. While NABR does not publicly disclose its donors, four of the five top donors to its sister organization, the Foundation for Biomedical Research, have all supplied, or experimented on, nonhuman primates. NABR President Matthew Bailey, a former legislative staffer on Capitol Hill, serves as president for both organizations.

“NABR apparently believes that when its industry benefactors have issues with endangered species protections, those protections should be gutted,” said Dr. Joanna Makowska, director and senior scientist for the Animals in Laboratories Program at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). “The biomedical industry’s web of financial incentives must be scrutinized to fully appreciate how precarious the situation is for long-tailed macaques. These primates should continue to be listed as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN; it is absolutely essential to protect the species.”

In October, AWI submitted a formal complaint to the IUCN, raising these concerns and others in response to NABR’s petition.

Now, a new scientific study the first to compare population estimates across multiple countries and regions — has found that LTM populations in the wild are indeed in steep decline. The research, published on May 24 in Science Advances, uses a new probability model to more accurately represent species abundance. The paper was coauthored by more than three dozen scientists representing many countries, universities, and conservation organizations.

“Our current estimate of approximately 1 million [LTMs] reflects a continuous decline representing an alarming 80% reduction over approximately 35 years,” the authors wrote. “The severity of this decline is further emphasized by the nature of the model, which overestimates the population … making the true decline possibly greater.”  

Financial incentives, sound science at odds

The use of long-tailed macaques in research involves many conflicting agendas.

Dr. Henry Foster, founder and chair of Charles River Laboratories (CRL), helped establish NABR 45 years ago. He recognized the commercial value of maximizing the numbers of laboratory animals.

"If you read the papers, everything seems to have carcinogenic effects. But that means more animal testing, which means growth for Charles River,” he told The Wall Street Transcript in 1979. “So you can see why we continue to be enthused and excited."

On its website, NABR touts its track record of advocating on behalf of its more than 360 member organizations, including universities, medical and veterinary schools, and pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. In 2002, for example, NABR successfully lobbied Congress to permanently exclude rats, mice, and birds from the minimal protections that the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) provides to animals used in research. (Rodents and birds comprise about 90% of all animals used in research.)

Among the association’s current members are Inotiv and CRL — the largest supplier and user of research monkeys, respectively. Inotiv’s chief strategy officer currently sits on NABR’s board, and CRL’s vice-president for global procurement served on the board until last year. Both companies have earned hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue related to the trade in LTMs.

The chronology of the industry’s attempts to influence LTM import regulations sheds new light on how far it will go to keep the billion-dollar primate trade pipeline open.

  • March 7, 2022: The IUCN revises its designation of LTMs from vulnerable to endangered, citing the legal and illegal trade for experimental research as a major threat to their survival.
  • November 16, 2022: The US Department of Justice unseals an indictment of eight people, including two Cambodian wildlife officials, alleging an international conspiracy to smuggle thousands of wild-caught Cambodian long-tailed macaques into the United States for experimentation. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) spearheaded the years-long criminal investigation that led to the indictment.                      
  • February 13, 2023: USFWS rejects a request from a company (name redacted by federal officials) to allow a shipment of long-tailed macaques, after the agency cannot confirm that the monkeys are captive-born.
  • February 17, 2023: The DOJ issues a subpoena to CRL related to its monkey imports from Cambodia.
  • February 27, 2023: NABR broadcasts a “crisis” action alert, claiming that 60% of the preclinical nonhuman primate models critical to “the pipeline for lifesaving medical advancements” were being denied import permits. The alert urges industry insiders to complain to federal legislators that the USFWS is creating a “disruption” in the “drug development pipeline,” and alleges that USFWS’ recent import denial represents a fundamental change to agency policy. In reality, the USFWS was simply enforcing existing US policy on a single questionable shipment.
  • May 4, 2023: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine releases a 248-page, government-funded report on primate research and supply that fails to discuss the industry’s financial motivations. The report reveals that more than 42% of US labs that use or hold primates are for-profit institutions. (A subsequent analysis by AWI found that in fiscal year 2022, CRL alone was responsible for nearly a quarter of all LTM research, experimenting on more than 16,000 monkeys.)    
  • May 23, 2023: Inotiv and its subsidiaries receive a voluntary request from the US Securities and Exchange Commission seeking documents and information regarding the company’s imports of nonhuman primates from Asia, and whether these practices complied with the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 
  • June 15, 2023: NABR files an informal petition with the IUCN challenging the endangered designation for LTMs. NABR states that it worked with “recognized, independent scientists” on the petition, but does not name them.
  • August 1, 2023: NABR, joined by two other pro-animal-research lobbying groups, announces that a coalition of 40 organizations is working to “protect” long-tailed macaques. The coalition includes Inotiv, CRL, and seven National Primate Research Centers that receive a combined $88 million in federal grants annually to experiment on monkeys.   
  • September 14, 2023: NABR announces that it has filed a formal petition with the IUCN. The group’s release names just one scientist on the NABR “scientific review team”: Ray Hilborn. A professor of aquatic and fisheries science, Hilborn has received substantial funding from the fishing and seafood industry throughout his career and has authored several papers challenging the data on fish population declines. In its media outreach, NABR repeatedly references a recent paper coauthored by Hilborn that disputes the IUCN’s “faulty” assessment of long-tailed macaques’ conservation status. That study was funded by NABR.   
  • January 16, 2024: Animal protection advocates and local residents attend a Bainbridge City Council meeting to protest plans for a 200-acre breeding “megafacility” to provide monkeys for biomedical research. At peak capacity, the $396 million complex would hold 30,000 long-tailed macaques — at least triple the number currently housed at any other US breeding facility — and employ up to 263 workers. Behind the project is Safer Human Medicine, a new company whose CEO was previously COO at Envigo and whose president and COO previously held executive positions at CRL. Envigo (now owned by Inotiv) made headlines in 2022 for atrocious conditions documented at a now-shuttered beagle-breeding facility in Virginia.
  • March 22, 2024: Masphal Kry, a Cambodian wildlife official, is acquitted by a US jury on two felony counts related to his alleged involvement in an international conspiracy to smuggle long-tailed macaques into the United States. Seven other alleged co-conspirators remain at large.
  • June 3, 2024: Envigo pleads guilty to federal criminal charges related to its management of the Virginia beagle-breeding facility, and admits to the government’s charge that "the conspirators established a business culture that prioritized convenience and profits over compliance with the AWA and the humane treatment of animals.”
Media Contact Information

Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
(202) 446-2128, [email protected]

The Animal Welfare Institute is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere: in agriculture, in commerce, in our communities, in research, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.