The dangers of China’s ‘thumb monkey’ trend

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A primate researcher weighs in on the newest exotic pet craze in China.

The dangers of China’s ‘thumb monkey’ trend
  • Pygmy marmosets, the world's smallest monkey species, are being sold in pets in China to celebrate the "year of the monkey."
  • Researchers say this market for exotic pets is driving wildlife trafficking around the world.
  • Scientists estimate hundreds of thousands of primates are trafficked in Peru alone. Most of them die before being sold as pets and those that make it out of the pet store likely don't last much longer.

The “year of the monkey” dawned recently in China – and with it, a trendy new exotic pet. Pygmy marmosets are all the rage among China’s wealthy elite, who are forgoing legality and snapping up baby marmosets at around $4,500 each. The internet has exploded with photos of the so-called “thumb monkeys,” while conservationists and primate scientists are lamenting the situation.

Weighing in at just over 100 grams (equivalent to about 20 U.S. nickels), pygmy marmosets (Cebuella pygmea) are the world’s smallest monkeys. They’re native to the rainforests of South America’s western Amazon Basin, where they live in small groups of around a dozen individuals. They aren’t considered threatened because of their large range and relative prevalence, but they are in decline, according to the IUCN, primarily due to the pet trade.

In a study published late last year in The American Journal of Primatology, researchers estimated that hundreds of thousands of primates are trafficked every year in Peru alone. Pygmy marmosets were the second-most trafficked primate species (squirrel monkeys were the first), accounting for 13 percent of the primates the research team found for sale as pets and bushmeat at Peruvian markets.

The pygmy marmosets is the world’s smallest monkey. Photo by Mike Peel via Wikimedia Commons (CC 4.0).

From their findings, the researchers concluded that levels of primate trafficking in Peru are still on par with those before the country enacted a ban on primate exportation in the 1970s. They write that a lack of enforcement capacity is largely to blame.

“There was one big shipment of 155 [pygmy marmosets] confiscated in Lima in 2010, probably on the way out of the country,” said Noga Shanee, researcher with Neotropical Primate Conservation UK. “Very low intervention rates of the authorities mean that the great majority of these shipment pass without even being detected.” Shanee told Mongabay that this is the typical way these monkeys are smuggled, and that many die before even reaching the coast.

Not all of China’s “thumb monkeys” are imported, Shanee said, and that many that are appearing in Instagram and Weibo posts may have been born in-country. However, these marmosets also stand little chance of survival, as the people who buy them often do not have the ability or knowledge to adequately care for them.

“Wild animal species differ substantially from domesticated animals and have low adaptability to captivity,” said biologist Clifford Warwick in a previous interview with Mongabay. “Stress from handling, transporting, or confinement in cages can often lead to early mortalities. Moreover, insufficient diets or inadequate thermal and humidity regimes can also result in deaths.

“The industry accepts high mortality rates because animals are cheap to source and the industry is dependent on mass sales and annual turnover/attrition.” An analysis conducted by Warwick and his colleagues found that around 70 percent of traded exotic animals die at the wholesaler.

Baby pygmy marmosets are marketed as “thumb monkeys” because of their size and their instinctive tendency to grab onto fingers in lieu of their mothers, which they are taken away from when they’re sold as pets. Photo courtesy of Specklet via Flickr (CC 2.0).

Escalating the problem, Shanee said, is the plethora of “cute” photos shared on social media by those who buy illegal exotics. This, in turn, may encourage others to go out and purchase their own trendy animals, boosting the market and, thus, increasing the trafficking of primates and other wildlife.

“People [in Peru] think that if it is ok for a Chinese or an American to have a monkey pet, why can they not get one in the local market?”

Shanee cautioned that news outlets can also make the situation even worse. She pointed to RPP Noticias, a widely read news agency in Peru, which published an article glamorizing pygmy marmosets as pets.

“These kinds of advertisements can really boost traffic here in Peru,” she said. “We managed to make them change the note in RPP a few hour later to a much less positive one, but who knows how much damage was already done?

Wildlife trade isn’t new in China. The country also has big issues with the trafficking of illegally harvested animal parts – often from highly threatened species – for Traditional Chinese Medicine. And “thumb monkeys” aren’t the only popular exotic pets in China. Slow lorises are marketed as children’s pets (after their venomous teeth are removed), and sealed plastic pillows containing live turtles, fish, and amphibians are reportedly sold as trinkets.

Animal welfare advocates in the country are pushing for stronger animal protection laws that they say would help stamp out such practices.

“If a national animal protection law was enacted in China, such acts of cruelty could be prevented, and those who persist in causing harm and suffering to animals within their care could be prosecuted,” David Neale, animal welfare director of Animals Asia, told CNN.

Citation:

  • Shanee, N., Mendoza, A. P., & Shanee, S. (2015). Diagnostic overview of the illegal trade in primates and law enforcement in Peru. American journal of primatology.

 

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