Each year, thousands of macaques and other monkeys are flown into Europe and North America to supply academic and industrial research labs -- more than 18,000 to the United States in 2011 alone. But in a campaign that could affect scientists across the West, the few major air carriers that still transport non-human primates are coming under unprecedented pressure to halt the practice.
One key route under threat is from China, which last year shipped more than 70% of the research primates sent to the United States (see `Up in the air'). On 14 March, animal breeders in China met with officials of China Southern Airlines to implore them to resume flights into Los Angeles International Airport, the largest US port of entry for research primates. Last August, China Southern cancelled a shipment from Guangzhou of 80 crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) destined for Los Angeles, after a social media, e-mail and telephone campaign by pressure group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), based in Norfolk, Virginia. China Southern has not flown research primates into Los Angeles since then.
"This was part of our larger campaign to disrupt the flow of primates to US labs," says Justin Goodman, associate director of the laboratory investigations department at PETA in Washington DC. The group complains that imports are supplementing an already-burgeoning primate population in US labs (see `Frequent flyers').
Two other airlines are also in the public spotlight. Air France faces mounting pressure as the last major European carrier to transport research primates. And Air Canada is petitioning the Canadian Transportation Agency, the body that regulates Canadian air carriers, for the required permission to refuse to transport research primates in the future. With news breaking last week that ferry companies have entirely ceased transporting all research animals -- including sophisticated mouse disease models -- into the United Kingdom, researchers fear that this is the start of a larger trend.