The Jane Goodall Institute, in collaboration with other animal welfare groups, has successfully petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare a new rule under which all chimpanzees—both wild and captive—must be protected as an endangered species.

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Wild chimpanzees have been listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1990, so it seemed odd and inappropriate to a coalition of animal welfare organizations, including the Jane Goodall Institute, that research chimps were not granted the same consideration. According to ESA rules, captive chimps cannot be assigned separate legal status from their wild counterparts owing to their captive state. In an effort to change this, the coalition petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2010 to list all chimps as endangered. This instigated a formal review of the ESA and the new ruling.

“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,” noted WSFWS Director Dan Ashe in a statement. “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.”

Jane Goodall congratulating the USFWS on the recent decision.

“This is something that so many of us from the animal welfare community have been working on for nearly 25 years,” commented Jane Goodall via her Youtube channel. “It will be enormously beneficial to individual chimpanzees in inappropriate captive environments and in ensuring that no more will have to endure similar suffering. As such it is a tremendously significant decision.”

According to the new rules,

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Certain activities involving chimpanzees will be prohibited without a permit, including import and export of the animals into and out of the United States, “take” (defined by the ESA as harm, harass, kill, injure, etc.) within the United States, and interstate and foreign commerce.

Permits will be issued for these activities only for scientific purposes that benefit the species in the wild, or to enhance the propagation or survival of chimpanzees, including habitat restoration and research on chimpanzees in the wild that contributes to improved management and recovery.

At the same time, the USFWS says it will “work closely with the biomedical research community” to permit work on chimps that’s deemed essential, such as studies on HIV or unforeseen epidemics.

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Writing in Science Magazine, news editor David Grimm describes the mixed reaction from the research community:

Susan Larson, an anatomist at Stony Brook University in New York who has worked with lab chimps for decades, says the USFWS announcement adds yet another hurdle to studying these animals. “We already have to apply for grants, get institutional approval, and be subject to regular inspections,” she says. “This is going to make it increasingly difficult to get these projects off the ground.”

David Johnson says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Johnson is the vice president of Cascades Biosciences Consultants Inc., which consults on biomedical research involving animals, and he has spent much of his career working with chimpanzees, including being the project director of the NIH’s Chimpanzee Management Plan and studying the animals to develop a hepatitis vaccine. “The chimpanzee is no longer an essential model in biomedical research,” he says. Still, he believes that some cognitive and other studies with chimps will continue. “This research will require some further justification, but I’m supportive of Fish and Wildlife’s decision,” he says. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”

The latest ruling is yet another sign that experiments on laboratory chimps are on the way out in the United States, or at least a sizeable portion of them. Two years ago, the National Institutes of Health announced that it’s phasing out the vast majority of research on chimps.

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The USFWS expects to issue its final rule on June 16, and it will go into effect on September 14, 2015.


Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by USAID Africa Bureau/cc