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macaque in zoo enclosure

Leading Japanese Primate Research Center is Closing

Kyoto University is shuttering its Primate Research Institute after its director was dismissed for misuse of funding.

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Chloe Tenn

Chloe Tenn is a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she studied neurobiology, English, and forensic science. Fascinated by the intersection of science and society, she has written for...

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Oct 19, 2021

ABOVE: A macaque in a zoo enclosure
© ISTOCK.COM, VALENTIN PETKOV

Update (October 28): Kyoto University plans to replace the Primate Research Institute with a smaller center with the working name Human Behavior Evolution Research Center and terminate two lines of research—language and intelligence, and cognition and learning—Science reports.

After over 50 years of research on primates, the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University is being disbanded, reports Sankei Shimbum. The research institute, established in 1967, contributed to a large array of internationally recognized studies in primatology across 10 research sections and two different facilities. It is home to a dozen chimpanzees and several dozen monkeys used in studies in fields such as ecology, behavior, cognition, morphology, neuroscience, and biomedicine.

According to Sankei Shimbum, the decision to close the Primate Research Institute (PRI) is to be finalized by the university at the end of October. It is expected that by March 2022, the PRI will be completely dissolved. This follows an allegation by Kyoto University of inappropriate use of center funding by former PRI director Tetsuro Matsuzawa.  

Matsuzawa was fired on November 24, 2020 after an audit found he had mismanaged the funds for chimpanzee habitat construction costs, reports Science. The board of Audit of Japan considered the execution of Matsuzawa’s construction project to be an “unauthorized use” of funds and “inappropriate handling” of contracts, which involved 500 million yen, equivalent to almost $5 million dollars.

Matsuwaza admitted in a statement on his website at the time that “business proceeded inadequately, and improper accounting was pointed out,” though he added he planned to continue consulting with lawyers. Primatologists around the world defended Matsuzawa, such as the University of Oxford’s Dora Biro and the University of St. Andrews’s Cat Hobaiter, who wrote in a joint email to Science that Matsuzawa applied the "highest ethical standards for working with captive apes.”

Matsuzawa, now a visiting researcher at the California Institute of Technology, wrote in his statement last year that despite the funding issues, he hoped the habitat he constructed “will allow the chimpanzees to live in peace” and enable researchers to “further study the evolution of the mind.” He offered “no comments” in an email to Science when asked about PRI’s impending closure.

The 12 chimpanzees at the PRI will continue to be housed there as projects are slowly scaled back ahead of the center’s closure. It is not yet clear if the changes to PRI will affect the Kyoto University’s Wildlife Research Center, which houses more than 50 rescued chimpanzees and six rescued bonobos, according to Science.  

University of Michigan primate behavioral ecologist John Mitani writes in an email to Science that “This is a sad and shocking outcome that will have a negative impact on science because PRI is arguably the leading center for the study of primates in the world.”