The federal government moved Tuesday to declare all chimpanzees endangered, an act that would provide stronger protections and potentially end nearly a century of using great apes as test subjects for invasive medical research.
In announcing the proposal, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said a 1990 decision by the agency to classify wild chimps as endangered and captive chimps as threatened, a designation that carries fewer protections, was flawed. The “split listing” under the Endangered Species Act, the only one in the history of the agency, was designed to allow the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund medical experiments using captive chimps, he said in an interview.
“The rule proposed today would correct this inconsistency,” the agency said, adding that the rule will be open for public comment for 60 days and finalized in December.
Ashe said the new rule sends a clear message that, contrary to popular belief, the survival of all chimps is threatened. More than a million have disappeared from the wild since the beginning of the 20th century, according to estimates by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Fewer than 300,000 remain, as people invade chimpanzee habitats, using the land to farm and hunting the animals for meat, according to IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
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“The most important thing about this is it brings attention to the plight of chimpanzees in the wild,” Ashe said. Because chimps are often dressed in clothing and used as comic relief in movies, Americans believe they are not endangered, he said.
Ashe said it is not clear how tougher protections for captive chimpanzees would affect NIH research projects or the use of the animals in the entertainment industry or circuses. Those aspects, he said, would be worked out during development of the final rule. But it is all but certain that any future medical research involving chimps would require Fish and Wildlife’s approval and a permit, officials said.
Members of the conservation organizations that requested an endangered listing for captive chimps two years ago — including the Humane Society of the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Jane Goodall Institute — said the change would have a profound impact on restricting the use of chimps in medical research.
They noted that the Fish and Wildlife proposal dovetailed with recent findings by two federal research bodies, the Institute of Medicine and an NIH advisory panel, that it wasn’t necessary to use chimps for research on human diseases.
Classifying all chimps as endangered also would affect the exotic-animal business, which peddles chimps as pets.
Buyers and sellers would be barred from taking chimps across state lines. International commerce would be banned.