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Tanzania's Grim Baboon Trade

By Gregory Mthembu-Salter, Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 10 November 2000

Johannesburg - Olive baboons are being 'kidnapped' for experimental xenotransplantation in the West.

The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) has uncovered a grim trade in baboons from Tanzania.

BUAV investigators in Tanzania have found that Olive baboons (Papio anubis) are being kidnapped in traps and sold for about R90 each to primate dealers, who then sell them to research laboratories for up to R9 000 a head.

BUAV believes that the trade is in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Although the current Cites does not ban the international baboon trade, it does require that the animals be properly handled to mini-mise the risk of injury or ill health.

Yet the evidence collected by BUAV shows that captured Olive baboons from Tanzania are often held in appalling conditions before shipment.

BUAV further asserts that the baboons suffer unduly during transportation, if only because of lengthy journey times. In December last year, for example, when 40 baboons were flown from Tanzania via Addis Ababa and Rome to the United States, the journey took three days.

BUAV investigators talked to trappers in Tanzania who told them that once they catch baboons they tie them together with rope to a tree and leave them there, often for hours or even days, until the dealers come to collect them. The baboons are then transferred to holding stations, where they can remain for several weeks.

At one Tanzanian holding station visited by BUAV, owned by Zainab Wild Market, captured baboons are kept in small, dark and poorly constructed crates, some of which have wire floors. Many of the larger adult male baboons are unable to stand at full height, and can barely turn round. The investigators reported little evidence of water or food.

Once an order from an overseas laboratory has been confirmed, the baboons are trucked in crates either to nearby Kilimanjaro airport, or to Dar es Salaam, about 10 hours' drive away, with the main buyers coming from the US, Russia and Yugoslavia.

Baboons are used by laboratories involved in experimental xenotransplantation - the transplanting of cells and organs between species. The baboons are given pig organs, including those from transgenic pigs that contain human genes. The casualty rate after such surgery is high, with published research showing many baboons to have died from fatal blood clots, heart attacks, infection or a severe rejection of the transplanted organ.

Baboons are hard to breed in captivity and most research baboons are caught wild.

Until this year most were supplied by a company named Mann & Miller, operating from Kenya, with only a relatively small number of baboons originating from Tanzania.

However, after the United Kingdom's Mail on Sunday exposed the terrible conditions baboons were living in prior to shipment at Mann & Miller's premises, Kenya Wildlife Service suspended the company's export licence.

Now international research laboratories have turned to neighbouring Tanzania for baboon supplies.

BUAV has raised its concerns about the treatment of Olive baboons with the Tanzanian authorities, who say they are investigating the matter. The chances appear good, however, that the Tanzanian authorities will follow Kenya's lead and suspend the export licences of the companies concerned, since the negative publicity this is attracting could harm Tanzania's tourist trade, which is largely based on its abundant wildlife resources.

However, such is the demand for baboons from research laboratories that if the supply from Tanzania dries up, new supply lines will be established in other countries in the region, like Ethiopia, which are less dependent on tourist goodwill.