Biomedical research, interstate trade and export and import of captive chimpanzees will now require permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Share story

All chimpanzees will be designated as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday.

The move follows a petition filed in 2010 by Jane Goodall, the Humane Society of the United States and other groups to eliminate a longstanding distinction between the legal status of captive chimpanzees, which were previously listed as “threatened,” and their wild counterparts, which have been deemed “endangered” for decades.

The petition was part of a long-running campaign by animal-rights activists to increase the protections for the animals that are among humans’ closest genetic cousins. Given their range of emotions and their level of understanding, chimps have long been afforded special protections that other animals — even monkeys — don’t get.

With the new designations, chimpanzees in captivity in the United States will receive the same protections as wild chimps under the Endangered Species Act. Biomedical research, interstate trade, and export and import of captive chimpanzees will now require permits issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The new rules will become official Tuesday and will go into effect Sept. 14.

The regulations do not require that people who privately own chimpanzees obtain a permit to keep them, nor do they require permits to use chimpanzees in the entertainment industry, according to Dan Ashe, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s director. He said the previous distinctions sent a mixed signal and created the impression that chimpanzees were not in dire need of help.

“At the time, we thought it was important to encourage breeding of captive chimps to expand their numbers,” Ashe said. “But we expanded a culture of treating these animals as a commodity for research, sale, import and export, and entertainment. That has undermined the conservation of chimpanzees in the wild.”

Chimpanzees once numbered about 1 million in the early 1900s, but widespread habitat loss and poaching have caused their numbers to decline. There are estimated to be between 172,000 and 300,000 worldwide, according to the Jane Goodall Institute.

The changes will create barriers to biomedical research, according to Ashe. There are 730 chimpanzees in the custody of biomedical laboratories, according to, and the changes require that any research that might harm or harass chimpanzees requires a permit.

Scientists will also need a permit to sell chimpanzee blood or tissue across state borders. To obtain a permit, biomedical researchers must “demonstrate that their research would be directly and substantially supporting the conservation of chimpanzees in the wild,” Ashe said.

That could include making donations to chimpanzee-conservation efforts, he said. “It’s a substantial burden; it’s not just a matter of writing a check,” Ashe said.

The use of chimpanzees in biomedical research was once commonplace but has been severely curtailed, because of the ethics of using animals so similar to humans in captive experiments and because scientists began to question the effectiveness of doing so. While chimps are genetically close to humans, there are enough differences that research on chimps doesn’t necessarily translate to humans. Beyond that, advances in laboratory techniques mean that knowledge once gained only by examining a live animal now can be learned in a Petri dish.

Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society, said the announcement, paired with an initiative by the National Institutes of Health in 2013 to retire government-owned chimpanzees from labs to sanctuaries, creates “an incredible one-two punch for chimpanzee conservation.”