Scientists and animal rights advocates have been eagerly awaiting this decision since the rule was first proposed two years ago, and it’s finally been made: all chimpanzees, both wild and captive, will be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The announcement, made on June 12 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), has been lauded by conservationists, but some biomedical research groups fear that it could impede critical research that could benefit humans.
Habitat destruction, disease and poaching have all contributed to a sharp decline in chimpanzee numbers, leading to their 1976 classification as “threatened” under the ESA. But in 1990, an unusual decision was made by the FWS that saw wild chimpanzees, but not their captive counterparts, upgraded to the “endangered” status.
The idea behind this controversial split status was to reduce the number of chimps that were taken from the wild for research purposes as the animals would be bred in captivity for the purpose, much like rodents. Many scientists also expressed concern that listing all chimps as endangered would threaten the future of crucial research, such as the field of HIV and AIDS.
“That was a well-intentioned decision, but now we realize it was a mistake,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe. “What we actually did was encourage a culture that treats these animals as a commodity.”
In 2010, the FWS was forced to review the separate classification of wild and captive chimps after various animal groups, including the Jane Goodall Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society, came together and filed a petition requesting that captive chimps be reclassified as endangered. Since the petition contained information about potential species threats—for example from trafficking and inadequate regulatory mechanisms, which have worsened since wild chimps were listed as endangered in 1990—the Service was required to complete a number of listing and habitat actions.
Ultimately, the FWS found that split statuses for captive and wild animals were not actually allowed by the ESA. Additionally, the ongoing and expanding threats to chimpanzee populations, coupled with their slow reproductive rates that hinder recovery from loss, were recognized by the Service as sufficient to meet the criteria of endangered, so the separate listings were abolished.
Although this new rule spells the end to a significant amount of invasive chimpanzee research, studies that could ultimately benefit wild populations or improve survival will be permitted. Anyone wishing to import, export or “take” (any activity that could harm, harass or kill) chimps within the U.S. will be required to possess a permit. This means that it is not only research chimps that will be offered some protection under the new regulation, as the same applies to those kept in zoos or for entertainment purposes.
Like many conservationists, primatologist Jade Goodall was quick to express her joy over the decision: “It shows an awakening, it shows a new consciousness. We should all raise our glasses tonight.”
While animal rights activists may be toasting to the announcement, many scientists do not share the same enthusiasm, with some pointing out that crucial research that benefits the health of humans could be on the line. For example, the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) pointed out that it is thanks to chimpanzees that we have vaccines for Hepatitis A and B.
“The full impact the new FWS ruling will have on biomedical research is unclear,” the NABR said in a statement. “However, it would be unfortunate, even grave, should an infectious disease outbreak occur where human lives are at stake and a chimpanzee model could expedite development of life-saving medicines.”