Nepal's First Primate Research Center to Breed Lab Animals

By Deepak Gajurel

KATHMANDU, Nepal, June 25, 2007 (ENS) - Two internationally known wildlife biologists - one from Nepal and one from the United States - have expanded their long collaboration in the field to establish Nepal's first primate research center. Based on the captive breeding of Nepal's rhesus monkey, the center will facilitate the study of disease progression and treatment in both countries.

Dr. Mukesh Kumar Chalise, president of the Nepal Biodiversity Research Society and associate professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, is well known for his efforts in the conservation of Nepal's wildlife with particular focus on non-human primates.

Dr. Randall Kyes, associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and Head of the Division of International Programs at the Washington National Primate Research Center, has worked for 20 years to promote the conservation of natural populations of primates around the world.

Their international partnership blossomed when they collaborated as Fulbright Scholars at each other's institutions during 2001-2002.

The two scientists are modest when discussing their accomplishments, but they speak with passion when it comes to the need for human health care.

They have initiated a program to breed rhesus macaque monkeys of Nepalese origin to fill a shortage of laboratory animals used in work to develop vaccines against diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Rhesus macaques are the primates used for most AIDS research.

Rhesus macaque monkeys are used in labs because their physical makeup is much like that of humans. (Photo courtesy NCBTI)
The Nepal Primate Research Center, now under construction at Lamatar in Lalitpur District, will breed the monkeys in captivity, and the offspring will be sold for research into AIDS and other human diseases.

The rhesus macaque, Macaca mulatta, is physiologically similar to humans and so is widely used in medical research, particularly in vaccine testing and as a model for AIDS research.

The rhesus macaque is prevalent in many countries and is not considered an endangered species. But not just any rhesus macaque will do for research labs. Those from Nepal are particularly in demand by scientists because of their genetic makeup.

Writing in the May 2006 issue of the "American Journal of Primatology," Kyes reported that Nepal macaques are more closely related genetically to their Indian cousins than to macaques from China.

Indian-origin animals have been used for more than half a century in biomedical and behavioral research. But in 1978 India banned the export of all macaques, setting the stage for the current shortage of research animals.

China does export captive-bred macaques, but scientists have noticed a number of behavioral and physiological differences in disease progression between animals from the two countries, and the Indian-origin macaques are preferred for research on certain diseases.

To facilitate the use of rhesus macaques in research while conserving Nepal's naturally occurring rhesus populations, the government of Nepal enacted the Wildlife Farming, Breeding and Research Working Policy in 2003 that allows only captive-bred animals to be used for scientific research.

After the policy was in place, an agreement between the Nepal Biodiversity Research Society and the Washington National Primate Research Center was signed in September 2003.

The Nepal Primate Research Center was the first facility in Nepal to receive official approval for captive breeding.

Critics of the macaque captive breeding program include renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, who said, "Nepal's monkeys are both sacred and beautiful creatures. They should not be exported to any country for research purposes, but should be allowed to live wild and free."

Animal Nepal and Wildlife Watch Group are among those who oppose the breeding and exporting of Nepalese monkeys for biomedical research in America.

These groups have obtained the signatures of more than 1100 people from 21 nations on a petition calling on the government of Nepal to cancel its plans to establish laboratories using rhesus monkeys and to export monkeys.

The government of Nepal has approved captive breeding of rhesus monkeys. (Photo courtesy Randall Kyes)
Mangal Man Shakya of Wildlife Watch Group and Jiggy Gaton of Animal Nepal say that the monkeys are considered sacred and are an important part of Nepal's heritage.

Another similar project, located at Lele, Lalitpur District, is also underway, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health through the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in Texas.

Dr. John Vandeberg, head of the foundation, wrote in a letter to Dr. Shirley McGreal, who heads the International Primate Protection League, "The goal of the project is to develop a breeding colony of rhesus monkeys in order to produce progeny for exportation to the U.S."

"These monkeys will help fill the critical shortage of rhesus macaques for biomedical research, a shortage that has caused a two- to three-year delay in some research projects and holds up the development of potential new vaccines and treatments for life-threatening diseases, including AIDS and tuberculosis which are major killers in Nepal and in many other countries," Vandenberg wrote.

McGreal opposes the captive breeding program, saying, "I appeal to the people of Nepal and to its religious and cultural and nature protection organizations to stand up for the monkeys of Nepal and keep them in the wild where they belong."

"This program will not harm the natural populations because we will establish the self-sustaining breeding colony with a relatively small number of animals that will be acquired from areas of known human-monkey conflicts," said Kyes.

"In Nepal, this conflict is caused by monkeys that raid staple crops such as sweet potatoes and corn. Crop raiding is prevalent in many areas in Nepal and in the last five to 10 years there are many instances of local people seeking to solve this problem by chasing or killing macaques.

"One of the goals of our international program is to assist our collaborators in creating the first primate research center in Nepal and to help address some of Nepal's most pressing health concerns that include HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis and malaria.

"In addition, the program has a strong conservation thrust. Establishing this center will allow more resources to be dedicated to primate conservation in Nepal because it has the potential to generate significant funding that can be directed toward the management and conservation of natural populations. This kind of program has been effective in other habitat countries and is supported by the World Health Organization and the World Conservation Union," he said.

Both Chalise and Kyes assure that the Nepal Primate Research Center will adhere to the highest standards and strictest guidelines regarding animal care and use and will follow the principles of sustainable use that have been outlined by the IUCN-World Conservation Union and the World Health Organization.

The scientists believe that to help ease human suffering from disease, the humane use of animals for research is justified. Both are committed to the conservation of wildlife but say that conservation also involves support of the human species.

Dr. Mukesh Kumar Chalise, left, and Dr. Randally Kyes in Langtang National Park (Photo courtesy Dr. Chalise)
Chalise and Kyes also are continuing their field work by conducting population surveys of Nepal's primate species such as the Assamese macaque, rhesus macaque, and Hanuman langur, and an ongoing study of the endangered snow leopard in the Himalayas.

During their field training program in Langtang National Park in February, Chalise and Kyes witnessed a snow leopard stalking a herd of Himalayan thar on the cliffs in Langtang village. This was a significant observation that further confirms Kyes' 2006 discovery of snow leopards in the park.

The two scientsts conduct an annual training program in conservation biology that provides classroom lectures and field-based training in the conservation of Nepal's most endangered wildlife such as the Assamese macaque, snow leopard, red panda, and musk deer.

More than 100 university students, park rangers and wildlife journalists from around Nepal have taken the training.

The program also provides community outreach education in conservation for elementary and middle school students from Kathmandu to remote mountain villages in Langtang National Park.

Kyes and Chalise say the outreach helps shape the children's way of thinking about their environment and the need for conservation, and teaches about the critical importance of generating public support and engaging local people in conservation programs.

They say that only by striking a balance between the needs of humans and sustainable management of the world's natural resources can we ensure the future of both.

The genome sequence of the rhesus macaque, Macaca mulatta, was published in the April 13, 2007 issue of "Science" magazine.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.