Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sukhumi's Monkeys Are Tough Nuts to Crack

The descendants of the first monkeys in space are attempting to adapt to Abkhazia's harsh economic climate
By Erik Batuev

As vicious battles raged through the streets of Sukhumi in 1992, Abkhazia's world-famous colony of laboratory monkeys faced its darkest hour.


Desperate to save the terrified animals from marauding troops, scientists daubed the words "Danger, AIDS" and "Danger, Radiation" on the walls of the compound. As a result, both Georgian and Abkhazian soldiers kept a respectful distance and the colony - which won undying glory during the first Soviet space missions - was saved from extinction.


The monkeys, however, were traumatised by their experiences during the war and, for the next eight years, were unable to breed. It was only this summer that things began to return to normal and the next generation of Sukhumi monkeys was born.


The colony is part of the Research Institute for Experimental Pathology and Therapy which develops and tests new drugs for fighting infectious diseases. Tests are only conducted on animals reaching the end of their lives.


The compound is dominated by a monument to the monkeys who have died in experiments to find vaccines against hepatitis, polio and smallpox. In the 1950s and 1960s, the institute also received funding from the Ministry of Defence which used its simian inmates to test treatments for radiation poisoning.


Most famously, Sukhumi monkeys had the dubious honour of taking part in the first unmanned missions into outer space.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the institute was hit by funding problems and a dramatic fall in commercial contracts. Today, the scientists receive salaries of just $12 a month.


However, the long-term effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have given the facility a new raison d'etre.


The institute's director, Sergei Ardzinba, explains, "We have a unique radiological department which is unmatched anywhere else in the world.


"Some of the firefighters at Chernobyl have experienced pathological changes in their blood. We're currently testing out new equipment which can pinpoint radiation sickness long before the physical symptoms appear."


Meanwhile, the institute is seeking funding for another ongoing experiment. Shortly before the war in Abkhazia, a large group of monkeys was released into the wild in a bid to establish whether they could develop the resilience necessary to survive in an alien climate.


According to the institute's scientists, the monkeys have adapted to their new environment surprisingly well - to such an extent that it has proved impossible to recapture them and examine their physical condition.


"We urgently need to get hold of a special stun gun which will enable us to get the monkeys back," says Ardzinba. "The problem is these guns are very expensive and we have no idea how to get one. We don't have any sponsors at the present time."


Erik Batuev is a regular IWPR contributor