SUKHUMI, Georgia (Reuters) - In the capital of Georgia’s breakaway province of Abkhazia, cracked steps lead up to a battered 1970s monument featuring a baboon.
“Polio, yellow fever, typhus, encephalitis, smallpox, hepatitis and many other human diseases were eradicated thanks to tests on primates,” the inscription reads.
Once the pride of Soviet science, Sukhumi’s Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy is now a shadow of the pioneering centre that helped defeat polio and saved countless thousands of lives in World War Two with penicillin treatments.
At its peak the institute boasted 2,500 monkeys, used in experiments on cancerous tumors, leukemia, pathologies of the nervous system, a range of infectious diseases and the effects of ageing.
Then came the breakup of the Soviet Union and a brief but bloody separatist war in Abkhazia which saw its leading lights gradually abandon the Black Sea coastal resort for the relative stability of Russia.
Staff still recall the dark days of the early 1990s when Georgian troops waging war with separatist and Georgian forces clashed in and around Sukhumi. Both sides engaged in looting, taking away monkeys.
“They drove in here on tanks. Armed looters took away all the young animals,” said Nina Rudi, chief animal technician at the institute who has worked there for more than 20 years.
Nina Roman, another employee, continues the story. “Many of the looters were boys wielding Kalashnikovs,” she said. “Some would later bring dying monkeys back.”
It was a far cry from the institute’s heyday, when academics, cosmonauts and Soviet statesmen mingled with the up to one million tourists who flocked to the institute each year.
The monkey colony was created with the arrival of two olive baboons and two chimpanzees in 1927, the only survivors from a batch of primates sent from a Pacific island.
They flourished in Sukhumi’s sub-tropical climate and were soon joined by scores of others from India, China, Southeast Asia and Africa.
“Back in 1927, this was the only centre of its kind in the world,” said Rudi. “Monkeys and apes are close to humans, but at that time they were still poorly studied.”
Under the auspices of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences, Zinaida Yermolyeva came during World War Two to test the first Soviet penicillin on monkeys.
It was then sent to the front lines and helped save the lives of many thousands of wounded soldiers.
“And in the 1950-60s, a powerful vaccine against polio was produced and tested here together with scientists from the United States,” said Roman.
Monkeys were also pioneers in the Soviet space programme, breaching the Earth’s atmosphere long before humans.
In the 1980s, the monkey colony was part of the Soviet space programme and the institute’s tiny museum still has a photograph of one of the “space explorers” — a macaque called Yerosha.
The name is written on a white cap, which was used to cover painful electrodes implanted into the monkey’s brain.
The discoveries of the Soviet era are little more than a fading memory for the remaining staff at the institute, which has faced an uncertain future since the separatist war ended with Georgian troops driven out of Abkhazia in the early 1990s.
While the breakaway region runs its own affairs, it is not recognized by any country and is subject to an economic blockade by Georgia. In Sukhumi, a bustling resort in Soviet times, evidence of the fighting and the economic impact of the blockade is everywhere.
Amid the palms, oleanders and magnolia trees, many facades are pockmarked with bullets, some of the colonial-style hotels and restaurants still lie in ruins and seagulls are the main visitors to the once-busy sea port.
Only 303 monkeys remain at the institute, many of them old and dying. The bored survivors roam sullenly in empty enclosures, waiting to cajole an occasional morsel out of the 25,000 visitors who came last year.
Rising tensions between Georgia and Abkhazia in recent months have led to fears of a new conflict in the province, and made the chances of any swift upturn in its fortunes remote.
Although unofficially backed by a petro-dollar rich Moscow, Abkhazia’s cash-starved authorities cannot offer the financial support the institute needs to haul itself back to the forefront of modern science.
That has forced it to put on hold many of its sophisticated scientific programmes and these days it mainly conducts cheaper, simpler experiments with the help of local medical students.
The cracked, dusty walls of the administrative building have not been repaired for years. A dilapidated 1970s television set gazes glumly from one of the corners while e-mail and faxes remain a luxury. Foreign grants remain a pipe dream.
“We have heard there is some interest in investing in the institute, there have been a lot of promises, but unfortunately it has all remained empty talk,” Rudi said.
Editing by Jon Boyle