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December 1996
The Satya Interview: Shirley McGreal

Protecting Primates Internationally


Shirley McGreal, Ph.D. is chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League, which works with international groups to protect primates in the wild and to stop illegal smuggling of primates worldwide.

Q: How did you first get involved in animal advocacy?
A. I went to live in Thailand and when I went to the airport to pick up my air cargo, I saw a shipment of baby monkeys bound for New York. They were white babies; later I learned they were stumptail macaques. The babies looked so helpless and, rightly or wrongly, I thought they were appealing to me for help. Later I seemed to run across primates everywhere: people on the same soi (small street) with pet gibbons, primates for sale in markets, etc. So in 1973, I founded IPPL.

Q: What first drew you to non-human primates?
A: It was exposure to their problems by living in Thailand. By studying them, and learning about their rarity and the suffering inflicted on them by humans, I got involved with non-human primates.

Q: Why the international focus of your organization?
A: Because suffering is not confined to animals living within U.S. borders. And we have always believed in stopping the primate trade at its source because, once the monkeys get here, it is next to impossible to secure decent treatment. Our biggest accomplishments were getting India to ban monkey exports (1977), the Bangladesh ban (1979), and working to maintain these bans. The smuggling of infant primates always involves international transactions. In addition, money spent overseas helping rescue centers and educating people is great value for a group's money.

Q: What happened in India and Bangladesh?
A: IPPL heard in 1976 from a Washington Post article by Walter Pincus, a defense correspondent, that rhesus monkeys were being used at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, in experiments to test the effects of neutron radiation. The tests involved training monkeys to run in a treadwheel and exposing them to lethal radiation. We started writing letters to the Department of Defense about the experiments, trying to stop them. Then we learned that the U.S. had an agreement with India regarding the use of exported monkeys, in that their use was limited to medical research and vaccine production. We contacted India's wildlife department which contacted the U.S., which denied misuse. So we sent press releases to all Indian newspapers, English and vernacular, describing the experiments and requesting a ban. The Times of India did an editorial denouncing the experiments and calling for an export ban. The ban itself was announced in November 1977 at the World Vegetarian Congress. Indian animal advocates monitor the situation and we get questions raised in the Indian Parliament every time there is a rumor of trade resuming because of pressure from the U.S. or elsewhere.

When India banned exports, a newly-formed U.S. dealership announced it had a contract to export 71,500 primates from Bangladesh over a 10-year period. We contacted our representative in Bangladesh, Dr. Zakir Husain, who had not heard of this but promised to look into it. He did, and learned there was a super-secret contract. He managed to get his hands on a copy and discovered that the contract contained provisions for the use of monkeys in medical research. Soon, IPPL got a tip-off that the first shipment of monkeys under this contract had arrived in the U.S. We started the press release routine again and the contract was canceled. We deluged Bangladesh's then president (General Ershad) with letters supporting the ban -- it's so important to praise good deeds when they happen. The U.S. dealer sued the Bangladesh Government in both the U.S. and Bangladesh courts, but lost both times. The U.S. actually threatened to cut off aid to Bangladesh unless it reinstated the contract, but that small country stood up to the big international bully (as it has done to drug multinationals selling redundant drugs). IPPL employed a sympathetic lawyer, Laurens Silver, to protect Bangladesh's interests in the U.S. case, which went as far as the Supreme Court: Laurens helped all the way through.

Q: What are some of the most important issues IPPL is working on at the moment?
A: We're checking markets around the world where primates are sold as pets and food and to foreign dealers who prowl these markets for valuable wildlife. We're campaigning to close these markets. We're also raising funds for Limbe Sanctuary in Cameroon which is home to rescued gorillas, chimpanzees and monkeys. In addition, we're working to end the U.S. pet trade in monkeys.

Q: How much are zoos, laboratories, and entertainment involved in the primate trade, whether legally or not?
A: U.S. zoos mainly breed their own animals or bring them in under permit. However, zoos in Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe have no qualms about bringing in wildlife of dubious origin. Laboratories mainly use common primate species (macaques and baboons) which are allowed with export permits from their homelands. Indonesia and the Philippines allow export only of captive-born monkeys, but laundering of wild-caught monkeys through breeding facilities may be happening. For example, Chinese monkey breeders complain about other purported breeders "laundering" monkeys wild-caught in Vietnam.

Entertainers buy baby apes, especially chimpanzees, from breeders in the U.S. and from dubious sources elsewhere. Some years ago the Russian circus Sovincirk got five chimpanzees smuggled from Uganda; they were confiscated on a circus tour of Hungary and sent to a rescue center in Uganda.

Q: Is the world community taking serious steps to control trade in exotic or endangered species? What practical steps need to be taken?
A: There is a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) on which all primates are listed in either the endangered or the threatened categories. This needs to be enforced. But CITES allows some trade and we need to work for strong local laws. Most countries outside the U.S. and Europe have weak or no animal welfare legislation. This needs to be addressed. Wildlife markets need to be closed down and the same goes for exotic animal auctions in the U.S. The trade in primates for "bush meat" (human consumption) needs to be addressed for conservation and animal protection reasons and also for health reasons as chimpanzees have caused two epidemics of Ebola virus and monkeys are suspected to have been a cause of the world AIDS outbreak.

Q: Are you optimistic about the fate of apes in the wild?
A: No. Of concern is the plight of the mountain gorillas due to the political instability of their entire habitat (Rwanda, eastern Zaire and Uganda). Rwandan refugee camps are situated on the edge of national parks and millions of people are going into parks to collect firewood. Gorilla protection activities are impossible in these circumstances. Because people cannot get along, gorillas may disappear in the century in which they were discovered. That's something to think about.

Q: What practical steps can activists in the U.S. do to support your work?
A: IPPL members are great letter-writers. Members send letters all over the world in support of primates, and we have been successful through it. Those who travel can take photos of markets, bad zoos, etc. You can also go overseas on rescue projects as volunteers. You can also partake in eco-tourism which can provide financial incentives to local people to protect wildlife, although eco-tourism is a two-edged sword which must be properly handled.

Shirley McGreal is the chairwoman of International Primate Protection League. For more information, contact IPPL, P.O. Box 766, Summerville, SC 29484. Tel.: 803-871-2280 or fax 803-871-7988. IPPL is on the web:


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