Chimps in captivity may soon join endangered species list

Proposal would extend protections to both wild and captive primate populations

PRIMATE PROTECTION All chimps, including ones held in captivity for medical research, may soon qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to a new rule proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Captive chimps might soon enjoy the same protections that their wild cousins do.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to apply the full terms of the Endangered Species Act to all chimpanzees, captive and wild. If adopted, the new rule would restrict import, export and harm of the animals, and clamp down on research that uses chimps and even their blood or tissue.

Roughly 2,000 chimpanzees live in captivity in the United States; about half of these are held for medical research. In 1990, the Fish and Wildlife Service granted endangered status for wild chimpanzees. Captive chimps were considered only threatened. In the entire history of the Endangered Species Act, there has been no similar instance of a split listing, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a press briefing June 11.

The new proposal would strike down the division and treat all chimps as one group. The rule would also require scientists to secure a permit for most medical research on chimps. Researchers would need to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service that their work is both absolutely necessary and contributes to conservation of chimps in the wild, Ashe said.

“There’s an emerging consensus that chimps and other great apes are no longer necessary for most — if not all — forms of medical research,” he said. “There are alternatives available.” The Fish and Wildlife Service consulted closely with the National Institutes of Health while considering this endangered designation, Ashe said.

Primatologist Jane Goodall welcomed the proposal. “Finally this day has come,” she said. “I think it shows that there has been an awakening — that people have begun to understand the nature of our relationship with the animal kingdom.”

After publishing the proposed rule in the Federal Register June 12, the Fish and Wildlife Service will accept public comments for 60 days. Ashe expects to have a final rule within a year.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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