CHOEUNG PREY DISTRICT, Kompong Cham province – Down a dirt track lined with banana trees and dotted with small wooden homes, an expansive white wall hides an unusual group of residents—thousands upon thousands of monkeys.
A golden plaque near the entrance identifies the compound as the Tian Hu Cambodia Animal Breeding Research Center. The long-tailed macaques inside, if all goes according to plan, will one day be the subjects of scientific testing.
The primates are destined for foreign laboratories—largely in the U.S.—where they will be experimented on as part of preclinical and clinical studies for drug development programs, according to Tokyo-based Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories (SNBL), which owns the monkey farm.
The company says on its website that it is “committed to freeing patients from suffering by supporting drug development.”
But advances in human medicines have long come at a cost for primates. And the farmed macaques in Cambodia are no exception.
Just last year, U.S. animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now lodged an official complaint after five monkeys raised in Cambodia allegedly died en route to an SNBL facility in the U.S., while 20 more had to be euthanized upon arrival due to their poor condition.
However, the monkey trade here remains big business.
According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival, more than 91,000 long-tailed macaques were exported from Cambodia from 2004 to 2012.
CITES lists the long-tailed macaque as the most heavily traded live mammal worldwide, and has categorized the industry in Cambodia as being of “Possible Concern.”
Animal rights groups say the past decade has seen an explosion in the use of macaques for scientific research. SNBL alone forecasts revenues of more than $160 million this year, according to Reuters.
At the firm’s Kompong Cham farm last month, security guard Phoum Veng, who has worked there for three years, said there are about 10,000 monkeys housed across the roughly 10-hectare site.
Although other workers gave varying estimates, figures from the International Primate Protection League suggest there are indeed large numbers of macaques being held at the farm. The group says 2,340 monkeys were imported to the U.S. from Cambodia last year, with 1,820 of these coming from the Tian Hu site.
Reporters were refused entry to the facility—one of five in Cambodia registered with the Agriculture Ministry—and several subsequent requests to interview company directors were turned down.
Tong Sat, who has worked at Tian Hu for four years, first as an electrician and then as a landscaper, described more than 40 large indoor enclosures containing rows of monkeys in single cages. Those used for breeding are the exception, placed in groups of nine females together with an adult male.
“They are kept in the cages forever, but after [workers] check their health, they change them to another cage,” Mr. Sat said.
New adolescents are regularly trucked in, according to workers, who believed they were being brought from another farm in Kompong Thom province and were not caught in the wild.
But despite past reassurances from government officials, allegations persist that an illicit monkey trade is flourishing in Cambodia as the international trade booms.
Sarah Kite, a director at the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said in an email that investigators from the animal rights group have traveled to Cambodia and Laos several times to probe a “largely unregulated trade in long-tailed macaques that has resulted in the apparent indiscriminate and intensive trapping of wild monkeys to establish the numerous breeding and supply farms that have been set up.”
Ms. Kite said the union believes monkeys are being trapped in Koh Kong and Siem Reap provinces to be sold to farms, not only in Cambodia, but also overseas.
“Without permits and to avoid detection by the authorities, the animals were reportedly brought into the farms during the night hidden under packs of ice in vehicles which have been adapted to hold cages,” she wrote of a British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection investigation carried out in 2012.
Shirley McGreal, the executive director of the International Primate Protection League, said her organization held suspicions that monkeys caught in the wild are being exported on false captive-born documents either directly out of Cambodia or via China, which exports huge numbers of macaques.
“We are concerned that this trade could wipe out Cambodia’s monkeys within a few years,” she said via email.
Though the number of macaques living in the wild in Cambodia is not known, conservation groups say it is diminishing.
At a meeting in Mexico in May, CITES agreed that Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were required to justify the scientific basis they had used to determine that the numbers of monkeys being exported was not detrimental to the survival of the species.
Cheng Kimsun, director of the Agriculture Ministry’s Forestry Administration, said in August that all of the monkey farms in the country were operating in accordance with animal welfare laws.
“Everything is done in compliance with the law,” he told reporters at the time.
There are also questions about whether Cambodians are benefiting from the trade. Workers at Tian Hu say they are pleased to have found jobs near their homes, earning between $100 and $140 a month for low-skilled work.
But Ms. McGreal of IPPL says the firms importing the monkeys are the real winners, especially in the U.S., where they can sell each animal for $2,000 or more.
“[Cambodia is] being ripped off, in my view,” she said. “Certainly its wildlife loses every which way one looks at this trade.”