Samphor* is a farmer in Pursat province’s Sampov Meas district. He’s busy harvesting rice at the moment, but also has a second and more controversial job.
During the mornings, Samphor works for Vanny Bio-Research company in Pursat town, a facility that breeds monkeys destined to be exported for use in medical testing.
The farm houses between 30,000 and 40,000 monkeys at any time, before selling them to research and pharmaceutical companies in the US, South Korea and Europe.
Samphor knows little about what happens to the monkeys after they leave Cambodia.
“All I know is the buyers do not want them to eat,” he said. “They take them for medical tests, and I think the price they pay is very high.”
Samphor starts work at the monkey farm at 7.30am and is back tending to his rice by 1.30pm.
“The company has been breeding monkeys for a long time. Most of the monkeys were brought here by villagers from other provinces,” he explained.
“The villagers would go to the jungle looking for monkeys to sell.”
Samphor said the company would give monkeys health checks before deciding how much to pay villagers for each animal.
The origins of the monkeys at the farm have in the past attracted condemnation from animal rights groups.
A 2008 report by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection said Cambodia was breaching international rules by allowing the capture of monkeys for research in the US and China.
BUAV said the unregulated trade was having an impact on the population numbers of the macaque monkey, leading to the degradation of jungles.
It also asked the Cambodian government to regulate the capture of wild animals, and urged the US and the European Union to ban their import.
But almost ten years on, local monkey populations have dwindled significantly.
Sopheak* from Pursat’s Phnom Kravanh district, said his father and other villagers used to go to the jungle looking for monkeys to sell.
But there are no longer enough monkeys to catch.
“Now many monkeys have been lost because lots of people caught them to sell,” he said. “About a decade ago, there were plenty of monkeys at Kravanh Mountain, but now you can go walking there and not see a single monkey all day.”
Sopheak said people from other provinces including Battambang, Kampong Speu, Stung Treng and Kratie would also catch monkeys to sell to the farm.
“It was not difficult to sell the monkeys because brokers would come to village to buy them,” he said. “But nowadays my father stopped catching monkeys because it’s difficult to find them.”
He said a Chinese company has recently started breeding monkeys in Pursat province, but he did not know where they got their animals from.
“My friend works at the company and said the monkeys live in good conditions with good food,” Sopheak said. “But they lost their freedom.”
The monkeys can be heard screeching from the Vanny Bio-Research facility on National Road 5.
Samphor said the company sold primates according to clients’ orders. Most ask for monkeys weighing between two and four kilos.
Last week, the company sent about 150 monkeys to a customer in Phnom Penh, Samphor said.
The monkeys travelled in two trucks, with plenty of food and water, he added.
“I don’t know how they export them overseas,” Samphor said. “I just know the monkeys are taken from the farm to deliver to customers at Phnom Penh International Airport.”
In addition to its Pursat farm, Vanny Bio-Research has offices in Kandal province’s Keansvay district. The firm, which is registered in Hong Kong and runs operations in Cambodia and Vietnam, could not be reached for comment.
Lay Piseth, head of the agriculture department in Pursat province, said Vanny Bio-Research had been breeding monkeys for many years and had a licence from Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries.
“This company bought monkeys from local villagers for breeding,” he added.
According to the ministry, Cambodia exported 2,350 monkeys to international markets in the first six months of the year. Ministry spokesman Lor Reaksmey said there were currently six companies managing seven farms that bred monkeys in Cambodia.“We export monkeys to China, Japan, the US, South Korea and the European Union,” he said.
“For South Korea and the EU, we send very few.
“The monkeys are not exported for cooking. They are used for medical research.”