Primate Experimentation in Australia

Primates are used in a variety of research experiments in institutions around Australia – including macaques and marmosets in brain and vision studies and baboons in xenotransplantation research. You can find a list of HRA “case studies” involving primates here. Listen to the HRA podcast on primate research in Australia here

Nedim C. Buyukmihci, V.M.D.“As an expert on the welfare and well-being of non-human primates, I believe that using these individuals in research is inherently immoral. Social structure and the opportunity for normal interactions with not only conspecifics (members of their species) in general, but their family members in particular, are crucial for the physical and psychological well-being of non-human primates. The privation of captivity is compounded by the kinds of experiments imposed on these individuals, which often cause intense pain and suffering which cannot be alleviated until the individual is killed. Although they are similar to human beings in some ways, non-human primates are sufficiently different to make them poor surrogates. Only studies on people can provide us with unquestionably useful information about human structure, function and pathological conditions which will be invaluable in understanding and treating human disorders. We are an intelligent and capable species. If we use our intelligence compassionately, we can find ways to answer the questions we have without harming and killing non-human primates.”

– Nedim C. Buyukmihci, V.M.D.
Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Medicine
School of Veterinary Medicine
University of California-Davis

Suitability as models for human disease

Chimpanzees are the species most closely related to humans. The chimpanzee genome (complete genetic material) is 98.77 percent identical to that of humans, therefore, researchers argue that chimpanzees will be the species most likely to replicate human outcomes in scientific (biomedical and toxicity) testing. However this small genetic variation between human and chimpanzees accounts for very significant differences in the way diseases affect the two species.[12] Chimpanzees are not currently used in Australian research, and those primates that are used have even wider genetic variation to humans, meaning that the differences in results would be greater again.

Universally accepted in scientific experiments involving human and non-human animal subjects, is the principle that the benefits must exceed the costs. Between 1995 and 2004, 749 papers on biomedical testing on chimpanzees were published worldwide. Ninety-five of these were randomly selected and not even half were cited in subsequent papers. Of those that were cited, only 14.7 percent were mentioned in the abstracts indicating relevance to tackling human diseases.

The degree to which a journal is circulated within the scientific community affects citation rates, therefore, citation rates are not an entirely objective measure of the importance of that research.[13] However, if chimpanzee studies are published in lower impact journals, then the logical reflection is that they are not important in the studies themselves. This calls into question the value of chimpanzee experiments, the majority of which make little noticeable contribution to biomedical advancement. Of the original sample, no chimpanzee study made an essential contribution to papers which had well developed methods for combating human diseases. Brown stated, “It is always problematic to what extent such models reflect the human situation.”[14]

Despite chimpanzees being the most genetically similar animals to humans, experiments on them have not provided substantial contributions to biomedical research. Therefore, it is logical for us to question, that if the most genetically similar animal to humans is an ineffective model, then how can the use of more genetically distant animals assist us? Such concerns – both scientific and ethical – are being recognised around the world where their use in research is being phased out.

“Monkeys are very poorly representative of human biology and diseases, including crucial research areas such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, and many others. They continue to be used in experiments due to their superficial similarity to humans, but it is increasingly clear that countless and important genetic differences exist, which combine to generate vastly different biologies, disease susceptibilities and pathologies. Monkey experiments are therefore inherently misleading, and can never reliably inform human medicine. The sooner science leaves them behind, the better – not just for monkeys, but also for billions of people relying on science for cures and treatments for diseases that blight their lives.”

– Jarrod Bailey, Ph.D.
Senior Research Scientist, BUAV

Statistics 2006-2017:

The following table shows the number of primates used in Australian research between 2006 and 2017 (the latest available). Not all states have provided annual returns showing the numbers of animals used in research, so the figures below could be considered to be conservative. The figures also do not include owl monkeys held by the Australian Defence Force (per below)

Year200620072008200920102011201220132014  2015 2016 2017
NSW122147323484184271822 41 200 96 38
TAS – –
SA3230n/an/an/an/a n/an/a n/a n/a
NTn/an/an/an/an/an/an/a n/a n/an/an/a
WA33n/an/an/an/an/a21 1823 28 7
QLDn/an/an/a58n/an/an/an/an/an/a n/a n/a
ACT*510n/an/an/an/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
TOTAL283217445768466340253219 202 405 305272 

NB: ACT figures are from ANU and CSIRO only. n/a = Statistics were not made available by the State or Territory Government.

Breeding Facilities

There are three NHMRC-funded non-human primate breeding facilities in Australia.

Despite this however, between 2000-2015, Australia imported:

  • 331 pig-tailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina) listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable to extinction (from Indonesia)
  • 250 crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) listed on the IUCN Red List from Indonesia
  • 46 owl monkeys (Aotus lemurinus grisembra) listed on the IUCN Red List from the US.[15] (71 are currently held at the Australian Defence Force Malaria and Infectious Diseases Institute and used for malaria research – personal email 4/4/18.) These animals are not included in the above statistics.
  • 59 marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) from France
  • 10 crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) from France.

(Numbers sourced from the CITES Trade Database, accessed July 2018)

The NHMRC supports the use of national breeding colonies (NBCs) for macaques, marmosets and baboons. In addition to the provision of research grants, the NHMRC makes annual contributions of $500,000 to the National Non-Human Primate Breeding and Research Facility and $195,000 to the National Baboon Colony.[16]

Over the period 2014-2017, the NHMRC awarded 26 grants to applicants who indicated they would involve non-human primates in their research:[17]

Grant RecipientNo. of grantsValue of grants Species
Australian National University2$1.1 million Macaque
La Trobe University1$0.9 million Marmoset
Monash University9$6.2 million Macaque, Marmoset
Murdoch Children’s Research Institute1 $1.1 million Macaque
University of Adelaide1 $0.8 million Marmoset
University of Melbourne8$5.7 million Macaque
University of Queensland1$0.8 million Night Monkey
University of Sydney3$3.2 million Baboon, Macaque

This research included studies into infectious diseases, sensory systems, nervous system disorders, immunology and vaccine development.

Furthermore, the NHMRC also funds research on primates overseas, such as inflicting heart attacks on macaques at University of Washington.


The development of several international centres and university departments for the furtherance of non-animal alternatives in scientific testing around the world shows that there is interest in this option. The Fund for the Replacement of Animals In Medical Experiments in the United Kingdom has examined non primate alternatives in five areas of medical research[18]:

Malaria:  There have been several in vitro (literally meaning, in a test tube) studies on human cells that have been used to examine the malarial parasite. These have included developing imaging technologies for visualisation of malaria molecules in living human cells, such as human liver cells. Human volunteers have been used to study the effects of specific genes, the product of which could be induced into a vaccine. Further, the human volunteer studies can be used to show gene expression in the malarial parasite, including the influences on the survival of the parasite.

Cognition:  Human imaging is the keystone to understanding the human brain. It replaces primate experiments with ethical, human volunteer subjects. Different brain scans can produce impressive amounts of accurate data, without the need for invasive techniques. Where brain lesions are needed, fully reversible lesions can be created safely on people. Human subjects are also able to respond to verbal instructions. This is invaluable to scientific understanding within cognition research.

Stroke:  Due to the failures in animal and primate models in current stroke research, there is more potential in the development of techniques to research strokes in humans. The techniques can include computer aided technology, brain imaging scans, in vitro studies, and the development of co-cultures using human cells and brain slices to study cell activity post mortem.

AIDS:  Non-animal techniques can be used to provide insight into the HIV virus and AIDS, such as screening the genetic makeup of hundreds of HIV sufferers, to determine susceptibility to the virus. Mathematical analysis and statistical prediction can be used to map the acquisition of the infection, its viral state, and how the disease escapes immune control. In vivo (within a live organism) and in vitro studies, along with molecular research using tissues and cells, have also proved to be some of the most successful non-animal tests to date assisting with understanding the disease and subsequent drug production.

Hepatitis C (HCV):  Mathematical modelling has been the most successful method for advancing the understanding of the HCV virus in human patients. In vitro systems have also proved effective.

Research on non-animal testing alternatives for these diseases has created a positive trajectory for the development of non-primate alternatives, should they be given the resources. Australia needs to step up to the mark and become a leader in this area – not continue with archaic and unethical research on primates.

[1] Maloney, R.T., Jayakumar, J., Levichkina, E.V., Pigarev, I.N., and Vidyasagar, T.R. ‘Information processing bottlenecks in macaque posterior parietal cortex: an attentional blink?’, Experimental Brain Research, 2013, July; 228(3): 365-7.

[2] W.J. Hawthorne et al, ‘Control of IBMIR in Neonatal Porcine Islet Xenotransplantation in Baboons.’, American Journal of Transplantation, 2014, June; 14(6): 1300-9.

[3] Weltzien, F., Dimarco, S., Protti, D. A., Daraio, T., Martin, P. R., and Grunert, U., ‘Characterization of Secretagogin-Immunoreactive Amacrine Cells in Marmoset Retina’, Journal of Comparative Neurology, 2014 Feb 1; 522(2): 435-55.

[4] Winnall WR, Lloyd SB, De Rose R, Alcantara S, Amarasena TH, Hedger MP, Girling JE, Kent SJ. Simian immunodeficiency virus infection and immune responses in the pig-tailed macaque testis. J Leuk Biol. 2015 March; 97(3): 599-609.

[5] Collins MG, Rogers NM, Jesudason S, Kireta S, Brealey J, Coates PT. Spontaneous glomerular mesangial lesions common marmoset monkeys Callithrix jacchus benign non-progressive glomerulopathy. Journal of Medical Primatology. Dec 2014, Vol. 43 Issue 6, p477.

[6] Rajan, R., Dubaj, V., Reser, D., and Rosa, M. ‘Auditory cortex of the marmoset monkey – complex responses to tones and vocalizations under opiate anaesthesia in core and belt area’. European Journal of Neuroscience, pp. 1-18, 2012.

[7] N. Sunderland, S. Thomson, S. Heffernan, S. Lim, J. Thompson, R. Ogle, P. McKenzie, P. Kirwan, A. Makris, and A. Hennessy, ‘Tumor necrosis factor α induces a model of preeclampsia in pregnant baboons (Papio hamadryas)’, Cytokine, vol. 56, no. 2, 2011, pp. 192-199

[8] J.  Sonnabend, DH., Howlett, C.R., and Young, AA. ‘Histological evaluation of repair to the rotator cuff in a primate model’. J Bone and Join Surgery, 2010, 92-B:586-94.

[9] C. E. Warner, W. C. Kwan & J.. A. Bourne. ‘The Early Maturation of Visual Cortical Area MT is Dependent on Input from the Retinorecipient Medial Portion of the Inferior Pulvinar’. Journal of Neuroscience, November 28, 2012, 32(48).

[10] Elson, GN. ‘Pyramidal cells in prefrontal cortext of primates: marked differences in neuronal structure among species’. Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, 2011, vol 5 article 2.

[11] K. McGregor, ‘Defence force supports monkey tests’, Courier-Mail, 23 November 2012. Available at, (accessed 9 July 2014).

[12] The Jane Goodall Institute, ‘Chimps in Captivity: The Great Ape Protection Act Fact Sheet’,, (accessed 9 July 2014).

[13] A. Knight, ‘Chimpanzee experiment: Questionable contributions to the biomedical process’, Alternatives to Animal Testing and Experimentation, vol. 14, special issue, 2008, pp. 119-124.

[14] P. Brown, ‘Blood ineffecivity, processing and screening tests in transmissible spongiform encephalopathy’, Vox Sanguinis, vol. 89, no. 2, 2005, pp. 63-70.

[15] Data obtained from CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), to which Australia is a signatory.

[16] Senate Community Affairs Committee, ‘Answers to estimates questions on notice’, Health and Ageing Portfolio, Budget Estimates 2013-14, 20 November 2013, question E13-198. Available at: (accessed 9 July 2014).

[17] Senate Community Affairs Committee, Answers to Estimates Questions on Notice, Health Portfolio, Budget Estimates 2017-2018, 28 February 2018. Ref No:SQ18-000414.

[18] G. Buckland, N. Gordon, G. Langley, M. Hudson, and C. Brock, Replacing Primates in Medical Research, Dr Hadwen Trust / FRAME / St Andrew Animal Fund, October 2008.


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