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Agency to consider endangered listing for US research chimps

chimp260.jpgPosted on behalf of Meredith Wadman.

In a small but significant first step published in the Federal Register today the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is opening the door to listing captive chimpanzees in the US as ‘endangered.’

The agency’s move comes in response to a March, 2010 petition by several groups led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and including the Jane Goodall Institute. In their 130-page argument, they maintain that a 1990 decision under the Endangered Species Act that listed captive chimps as ‘threatened’ but wild ones as ‘endangered’ is specious and should be done away with.

“There should be a consistent protection for all chimps regardless of whether they are in the wild or in captivity,” says Kathleen Conlee, the Senior Director, Animal Research Issues at HSUS.

The FWS, which desginates endangered species and enforces their protection, has indicated by its publication today that it is willing to start down the regulatory path to declaring captive chimps endangered.

It writes, in part, that the groups’ petition “presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing all chimpanzees as endangered may be warranted.” The agency opened a public comment period which closes on October 31.


The groups’ petition focused largely on captive chimps in zoos* and on movie sets. But it also targets medical research. An endangered designation for captive chimps would make it much more difficult, if not impossible, for US scientists to continue to conduct research on the roughly 950 chimps now available for biological and behavioural studies.

While scientists could petition the agency for permission to use a captive chimpanzee in a research experiment, under the law, they would have to prove that the ends of the experiment serve chimpanzee conservation. For instance, a trial testing the safety of an ebola vaccine aimed at protecting chimpanzees in the wild could be construed as promoting chimp conservation, while a trial establishing the safety of a hepatitis C drug for humans would not.

In general for scientists, “petitioning Fish and Wildlife for use would be time consuming and prohibitive,” says Thomas Rowell, the director of the New Iberia Research Center near Lafayette, Louisiana, the country’s biggest facility housing research chimpanzees. Rowell predicts the demise of all invasive research if captive chimps are listed as endangered, arguing that the handful of centers like his would be forced to send their chimpanzees to sanctuaries, where breeding bans would ultimately guarantee the extinction of captive chimps.

Nature looked at Rowell’s operation as a microcosm of US chimp research and the challenge it is facing in this recent story.

Next steps by the FWS after the comment period closes are likely to take months. If in fact the agency concludes that captive chimps should be designated endangered, that will moot the current work of an Institute of Medicine committee. At the request of the National Institutes of Health, that committee is assessing the justifications for the biomedical agency to continue funding chimpanzee research.

*The HSUS’s Conlee contacted us after this blog was posted to note that the petition does not target zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), whose member zoos house some 264 chimpanzees. The AZA is in fact one of the petitioners. The zoos it accredits must maintain “specific standards for animal care, education, wildlife conservation, and science,” the petition notes, as opposed to “sub-standard (`roadside’) zoos that are not accredited by the AZA.”

Photo Credit: Aaron Logan

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    brian hare said:

    I’m really not sure how the author can back up this statement, “An endangered designation for captive chimps would make it much more difficult, if not impossible, for US scientists to continue to conduct research on the roughly 950 chimps now available for biological and behavioural studies.”

    If this is correct how does the author explain the fact that many researchers who study chimpanzees in Africa must get clearance from USFW already….the majority of these studies overlap with those done in labs (blood, saliva, genetic and tissue samples, behavioral / cognitive work etc). How can people working in Africa with wild and captive apes continue their research but lab researchers will not?

    Perhaps there is some nuance missing here?

    Also while you link to the petition there is no mention of the real threat to conservation that the split listing in the U.S. poses to wild chimpanzees.

    How are U.S. conservation organizations supposed to encourage African’s to protect endangered chimpanzees when the U.S. has created a population where the rules do not apply?

    Why shouldn’t Congo or Uganda just designate an entire population of chimpanzees as non-endangered for “research purposes” and profit from the bushmeat and pet trade as the U.S. benefits from research and the pet trade?

    If we do not list all chimpanzees as endangered how do we explain this hypocrisy to our African colleagues?

    Listing all chimpanzees as endangered gives organizations real teeth to end the pet trade in the U.S. and credibility to work towards our conservation goals in Africa. All chimpanzee researchers should be very supportive of this.

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    Brett Barbaro said:

    Thomas Rowell’s apparent argument that “sending chimpanzees to sanctuaries, where breeding bans would ultimately guarantee the extinction of captive chimps” seems quite bizarre. Listing captive chimps as endangered would therefore destroy them? I’d be interested to hear more details regarding this apparently contradictory statement.

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    Alfred Levinson said:

    Captive chimpanzees in the U.S. are not endangered unlike those in the wild. To deny research using chimpanzees to develop vaccines for Hepatitus C is to endanger the lives and condem to death millions of people who get Hepatitus c. This places the rights of chimpanzees above rights of humans. If the USFWS does ban the use of chimpanzees in the development of Hepatitus C vaccines this will place the USFWS in violation of human rights.

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