The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports it has classed all chimpanzees, whether captive or wild, under the Endangered Species Act. Previously, chimpanzees kept captive in labs for biomedical research, entertainment or as pets were classed as “threatened”.The USFWS director Dan Ashe agrees that this has transmitted an erroneous mixed message to the public. Whether captive (and hopefully cared for) or living in the wild, all chimps belong the same species, and this species is definitely endangered and in dire need of help.
In 2010, the Service received a petition from a coalition of organizations, including the Jane Goodall Institute, The Humane Society of the United States and other groups, to class all chimps under the same act.The new decision from the USFWS indiscriminately protects all chimps in the US by the same laws, and is heralded by chimp sanctuaries and NGOs as an important step towards consolidating chimpanzee conservation efforts.
“Extending captive chimpanzees the protections afforded their endangered cousins in the wild will ensure humane treatment and restrict commercial activities under the Endangered Species Act,” Ashe said. “The decision responds to growing threats to the species and aligns the chimpanzee’s status with existing legal requirements. Meanwhile, we will continue to work with range states to ensure the continued survival and recovery of chimpanzees in the wild.”
In the early 1990s, chimps numbered about a million, but the population spread out across 22 equatorial nations has plummeted since. According to the Jane Goodall foundation, between 172,000 and 300,000 chimps are alive today, marking a steep decline following massive habitat loss, poaching, pet trade and, not least, disease outbreaks.
Wild chimpanzees were listed as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1990. Now captive chimps have been classed under the same ruling, helping the 1,724 chimps currently living in captivity in the US, 730 of which reside in labs, gain protection. Previously, captive chimps were classed differently to encourage breeding and conservation efforts. However, what “we actually did was expand a culture and an attitude of treating these animals as commodities for research or sale… and for entertainment,” Ashe says.
So, what’s the added benefit for captive chimps now? Well, for one, research labs that use chimps for experiments are now legally bound to obtain a permit. A permit will also be required to sell chimpanzee blood or tissue across state borders. In order to obtain the permit, research labs now have to “demonstrate that their research would be directly and substantially supporting the conservation of chimpanzees in the wild,” Mr. Ashe said. One way to do so is to support chimp sanctuaries and conservation projects with monetary aid. Writing a check won’t be enough though, according to Ashe, and other efforts will be required for labs to obtain a permit.
“This rule change will help put an end to the exploitation of chimpanzees and we are happy about that,” said Erika Fleury of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, a group of eight primate sanctuaries in the United States and Canada that cares for close to 600 chimpanzees and monkeys.
In 2013, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) was advised to retire its decade-old colony numbering 360 chimpanzees to a national sanctuary. Only a handful should have remained under NIH custody, kept only for research whose benefits are considered highly important to mankind. But, as of February, only six have left the government-research facilities, while 24 chimpanzees died waiting, National Geographic reports. The problem is that there simply isn’t enough room for these many chimps. There are only two chimpanzee sanctuaries in the US : Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Florida, and Chimp Haven in Shreveport, Louisiana. Both are operating at full capacity. So, laws and policies that protect chimps against abuse, harm or inhumane treatment are basically useless if not joined by funding to support sanctuaries. But it’s a first step. The money might follow.