Kompong svay district, Kompong Thom province – Obscured behind a high concrete wall with a sign reading “Golden China Primate Propagate & Research Center” is a roughly three-hectare compound housing an estimated 8,900 long-tailed macaque monkeys. Roughly 3,000 of the monkeys were captured in the wild by Cambodian villagers, according to Bun Tha, the Phnom Penh-based spokesman for Golden China.
The stated purpose of the Chinese-run monkey farm in Prey Preal village, Trapaing Russei commune, which was established in 2003 and consists of eight buildings that Cambodian workers claim are filled with caged primates, is biomedical research and breeding.
It exports the offspring of its breeding stock to research laboratories, mostly in Japan and China.
“This company is just for research purposes and to breed monkeys for pharmaceutical testing,” Bun Tha said.
“The project is good because we can help to prevent the smuggling of wildlife to Vietnam and create jobs for local people,” he added.
But some conservationists and officials expressed concern that the macaques-the most common form of primate in Cambodia-may not be treated humanely and that breeding farms, increasingly common in Cambodia and the rest of the region, could be used to obtain transport papers to legitimize the illegal export of wild macaques.
“WildAid’s concerns…reside in the possible abuses that could be generated with promoting macaque farming businesses, because of the weakness of law enforcement institutions and the legal framework related to such practices in Cambodia in general,” said Delphine Vann Roe, deputy country director of animal conservation NGO WildAid.
“The fact is that in Cambodia the government supports macaque farming and WildAid does recognize [the government’s] intentions to enforce regulations and standards to somehow minimize the cruelty of macaque farming business,” she added.
Officially, the only animal species bred in Cambodia for commercial use are long-tailed macaques and crocodiles.
Chan Sarun, minister of agriculture, whose ministry has permitted three monkey farms-located in Kompong Chhnang, Kandal and Kompong Thom provinces-said he was not worried about the businesses because “those monkey nurseries are under our control.”
Sun Hean, deputy director of the wildlife protection office for the Ministry of Agriculture, said the macaque farms are “not a bad idea.”
“We are currently working with various NGOs to decide how to improve things like the monkeys’ cage size and living conditions and will ask [Golden China] to improve the situation,” he said.
However, secrecy shrouds the day-to-day operations at the Golden China site, which representatives said is not open to outsiders.
On Wednesday, a reporter was grabbed by a Chinese guard as another locked the front gate after the reporter and a colleague entered the open compound. After a brief conversation with a group of nearby biomedical researchers, including Tong Fei, director of the quarantine center, reporters were politely told to leave the premises for safety reasons.
Opposite the entrance to the compound, former Golden China employee Chim Chek, 44, lives with his family. He said he was paid $0.75 a day for construction work-which he said included the building of a brick crematorium where monkey carcasses were brought for incineration.
“There is one building where there are several thousand monkeys in many cages,” he said, claiming that between 10 to 20 monkeys are kept in a single cage.
“I’m not happy with it. I think these Cambodian monkeys should live in the wild,” he said.
Another local villager, Chem Cheng, 25, said he gets paid $1 a day to hold the animals down while the researchers he described as “monkey doctors” extract blood samples from the primates, the breeding stock of which were collected in the Tonle Sap Lake area and Kratie province.
For the Cambodian workers who handle the monkeys, the job comes with risks.
As many as 90 percent of adult macaques are infected with the herpes B virus, which causes an acute encephalitis that is usually fatal in humans, according to the National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US.
Transmission of the B virus primarily occurs through the bite of an infected macaque monkey with active lesions, but infection can also occur if a person’s mucous membranes or broken skin is infected with the fluids or tissues of a carrier macaque.
Bun Tha stressed that the Cambodian employees-who appeared to be mostly young people from the area-are given training in how to handle the monkeys safely.
He said they go through a mandatory medical examination every six months and are issued gloves if they work directly with the primates.
“None of the workers has gotten sick,” said Bun Tha, stressing that Golden China also treats the macaques well.
“We feed them five times a day-vegetables and fruits. Frankly speaking, that’s better than children of the poor families,” he said.
The macaque is listed as a “globally near-threatened” species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The ranking is the lowest level designated for a threatened species.
Sun Hean said that because the macaque monkey appears in Appendix II of the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species-which means that the trade or sale of the species must be “highly regulated”-the Cambodian government is free to set collection quotas after conducting its own population studies.
“The devil is in the details,” said Joe Walston, research coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“On the whole, we are against the capture of animals from the wild for the purpose of farming, but I’d be very cautious at estimating at what level it might negatively impact a wild population of macaques because it’s a fairly widespread species in Cambodia,” he said.
Bun Tha said that Golden China gets its wild monkeys by buying them from villagers-but he couldn’t say how much they pay them. “We tell the local people to collect the monkeys in the Tonle Sap area and Kratie and then we go and investigate the monkeys’ health before we buy them,” he said.
But Neou Bonher, permanent deputy of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, expressed his concern about illegal catches of monkeys from the Tonle Sap, which he said were dwindling the populations.
“We have to watch very closely the way that they do this,” he said.
“I’m calling for the inspection and investigation into the monkey farms to make sure they are really monitored,” he added.