UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Drops Monkey Circus

At Vietnam’s Can Gio reserve, monkeys performed tricks in subpar conditions. The circus has left—but the monkeys remain in possession of the corporation.

As animal welfare increasingly becomes a part of the public conversation, it’s becoming more common to see stories about animals living in situations that are harmful to their mental and physical health. Take dolphins in marine parks, or Yemen’s starving zoo animals—or the tragic case of Pizza the polar bear.

Too often we never find out what ultimately happens to these animals. Do they ever leave their decrepit enclosures in that zoo? Do they ever get a reprieve from performing for people? Do they survive their near-death experiences in captivity?

In our series “Where are they now?” Wildlife Watch reports on animals whose plights have elicited widespread concern and sympathy, to see how they’re faring now. Today we follow up on a monkey circus at a UNESCO reserve. Please email ngwildlife@natgeo.com if you'd like to know the status of a particular animal.

UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are supposed to be strictly protected ecosystems where conservation and sustainable use intersect. The Everglades in Florida is a biosphere reserve, as is wildlife-rich Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and Komodo National Park, the Indonesian island where the world’s only komodo dragons live. Can Gio, a mangrove forest near Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve, home to king cobras, saltwater crocodiles, fishing cats—and until recently, a monkey circus.

Can Gio's management and the city of Ho Chi Minh acknowledged the animal welfare concerns and asked the circus, a private company, to leave the reserve. The monkeys, however, remain with the company. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF ANIMALS ASIA

Biosphere reserves should demonstrate a “balanced relationship” between humans and nature, but in the monkey circus, the macaques were dressed in children’s clothes and forced to ride bikes, walk tightropes, jump over flames, and more. Footage taken at one performance shows monkeys cowering from their handlers.

“These performances tell our children that wild animals are here for our entertainment,” said a press release from Animals Asia, a Hong-Kong based nonprofit, at the time. In order to train a monkey, it’s often taken from its mother at birth and subjected to isolation and harsh training methods until it can perform and follow commands.

Wildlife Watch reported on this incongruous situation in April 2017, about six months after Animals Asia began a campaign to shut the circus down. UNESCO’s headquarters said at the time that it was up to the in-country office to deal with it. UNESCO’s Vietnam office actually agreed with Animals Asia, calling the circus a “violation of bio-ethics and eco-ethics” and said it should be shut down. They didn’t act immediately, but eventually they did—in March 2018, when the circus left the park for good.

To train a monkey, the animal is typically taken from its mother soon after birth and subjected to isolation and abuse during the training process. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF ANIMALS ASIA

"We received feedback from Animals Asia and the public against the use of wild animals and came to realize that it is both unnecessary and inhumane to treat animals this way,” said Can Gio Biosphere Reserve’s deputy director, Le Van Sinh. “The city government recognized the negative impact on the city's tourism and decided to have the circus closed down."

“The removal of the circus sends a clear message that animals in entertainment at tourist facilities will no longer be tolerated in Vietnam,” said Animals Asia’s animal welfare director Dave Neale, in an email. “However, as long as the exploitation of animals continues in the country, our work will continue.”

Neale says that the amphitheater space where the circus used to be is slated to be developed into an education center.

Although the circus is no longer at the park, it is still an independent business entity, and the performing macaques remain in the possession of the circus’s parent company. Nonetheless, Neale emphasizes the fact that it’s no longer at the reserve is a step in the right direction.

“We can use this as an example of positive change within the country,” he said. “[It] will hopefully have an impact on other facilities or, at the very least, on the public's acceptance of the use of animals in circuses.”

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