South Africa is the hub of a booming illicit trade in marmosets and other protected small monkeys to pet markets in Asia, say international wildlife monitors.
The "pocket" monkeys that survive the trip east – an average 30% fatality rate has been recorded – often die shortly after being bought by fashionistas, who then buy more.
Primate protection organisations were alerted to the South African link by an American living in Thailand, who regularly visits the Chatachuk market in Bangkok and other Thai markets. He said that, over the past six months, he had noticed a large number of birds and monkeys "from Africa" for sale.
"I was informed these are imported every month from South Africa and they 'die easy' … People here obviously buy them as novelty pets and then in weeks or months they are dead. It was explained to me the marmosets are very delicate and difficult to care for, but the sellers are thrilled as the buyers become attached to them and rush to buy a replacement," said the American, who did not want to be identified.
Edwin Wiek, secretary general of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, said the illicit trade in marmosets, squirrel monkeys and tamarins was "getting out of hand". The small, hyperactive tree monkeys are native to South and Central America, but an increasing number are being sent to Asia by South African wildlife breeders and traders.
"The trade is booming and the monkeys are openly sold at the Bangkok weekend market as pets and elsewhere through the internet," he said.
Although they are listed as threatened and protected on appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, he said the importers paid off Thai department of national parks and wildlife officials "to get the monkeys [in] without quarantine or even giving an address where they take them".
One of the deals international organisations are investigating is the sale of 80 marmosets and 10 squirrel monkeys to a Thai citizen, Somporn Mongkol, in April by Mystic Monkeys and Feathers Wild Animal Park near Pretoria, which breeds exotic wild animals and has "one of South Africa's largest private primate collections featuring 44 species".
Questions sent to Mystic Monkeys and Feathers were answered by Duncan Heathfield, a representative of Toucana Exporters, which organised the sale. He said the 90 primates had been bred in captivity and were part of an "animal exchange" between zoos. Mystic Monkeys was a registered zoo and, in return, would receive indigenous Thai birds from the Bangkok bird park, he said. "There are about 10 000 breeding pairs of these 'pocket' monkeys in South Africa and a lot of pet shops stock them here too. Almost every day South African breeders send shipments of them to Asia," he said.
But Wiek said he had no idea where the "Bangkok bird park" was and the address given on the paperwork for the sale "is just a piece of land with no buildings on it at all in the middle of Bangkok". Mongkol was a private individual and the bird park was "probably a fake company registered as a zoo to facilitate imports", he said.
Shirley McGreal, executive director of the International Primate Protection League, said her organisation was investigating other consignments of small primates expected to be sent from South Africa to Asia this month.