Populations of wild chimpanzees, who once numbered in the millions, have severely declined over the years and they continue to face a number of threats ranging from habitat loss and fragmentation to disease and poaching for meat and the pet trade.
They were protected in the wild as endangered under the ESA in 1990, but their captive counterparts were listed as threatened, which exempted them from the same protection that their free-living relatives received.
In 2010, a status review was prompted by a petition filed by several organizations seeking to have captive chimpanzees reclassified. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) just announced it has finalized a rule that will upgrade them to endangered ending the unique “split-listing” that has divided them.
Now advocates for this species are applauding the change and are hopeful that it will bring much needed awareness to their plight, in addition to restricting actions that harm them.
“This change shows that many people are finally beginning to understand that it is not appropriate to subject our closest relatives to disrespectful, stressful or harmful procedures, whether as pets, in advertising or other forms of entertainment, or medical research. That we are beginning to realize our responsibilities towards these sentient, sapient beings, and that the government is listening,” said Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, which was one of the co-petitioners.
Less protection for captive chimpanzees has allowed us to continue to exploit them in entertainment, as pets and in biomedical research.
Their continued uses have made it seem like they weren’t in trouble, and even though some believed increasing numbers in captivity would help, many others believe it has only backfired.
“At the time we thought it was important to encourage breeding of captive chimps to expand their numbers,” FWS Director Dan Ashe told the New York Times.” 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.”
While the change won’t end private ownership, it will impact how chimpanzees are used and treated by requiring permits for interstate sales and the import and export into and out of the U.S., in addition to requiring permits for anything that could constitute “take” under the ESA, which means anything that could cause them stress, harm or death.
When it comes to research, permits would only be issued for projects that are intended to directly benefit chimps, such as habitat restoration, researching wild chimps to contribute to improved management or recovery or studying diseases that specifically affect them.
While the agency says it will now focus efforts on protecting chimpanzees in the wild, the Humane Society of the United States, another one of the co-petitioners, says it is now going to work on creating more sanctuary space for more than 700 publicly and privately owned chimpanzees who are waiting to be retired from research facilities.