By Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka is considering a proposal by a Chinese private company to export 100,000 endemic monkeys to China, a government minister said on Tuesday, sparking protests from animal protection groups.
The island's agriculture minister has appointed a committee to evaluate the proposal to export 100,000 toque macaques, found only in Sri Lanka, to be displayed in zoos in China, Cabinet Spokesperson and Transport Minister Bandula Gunawardana said.
"This is not a discussion between the Sri Lankan government and the Chinese government but with a Chinese company," Gunawardana told reporters at a weekly briefing, without naming the company. "The committee will evaluate the proposal."
The move has alarmed environmentalists and conservationists who have warned the monkeys could be headed to labs rather than zoos, even if it earns some scarce dollars for the country facing its worst economic crisis in more than seven decades.
The organisations say China has only about 18 zoos, which would have to house about 5,000 monkeys at each.
"Macaques, with their human-like qualities have been particularly popular, especially with medical testing facilities in the USA and Europe. The potential income from such a trade would be far greater than that from the sale of this species to zoos," four conservation organisations said in a joint statement. "Is this where these macaques are headed?"
They demanded the proposal be discarded and toque macaque habitats be protected. They also want the government to allocate resources to study the monkeys' behaviour and reduce harvest losses, which is a reason cited by the agriculture ministry to consider capturing and exporting the animals.
(Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)