On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that all chimpanzees are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. The shift means that chimps, both in the wild and held in captivity, are now officially considered to be endangered. Previously, captive chimps maintained "threatened" status.
In a press release, FWS Director Dan Ashe said that "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… the decision responds to growing threats to the species and aligns the chimpanzee’s status with existing legal requirements.”
The new status means changes in how chimpanzees can be treated in the U.S. From the FWS:
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.
To receive a permit for any of these activities, one would need to prove that chimps will be used for science, and that the aim would be to make the chimp population more robust and secure overall.
Friday's announcement follows a 2013 decision by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to move away from using chimps in medical research. The NIH said at the time that it "plans to substantially reduce the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research and designate for retirement most of the chimpanzees it currently owns or supports."
Coupled with this NIH decision, today's announcement serves as a "one-two punch" for conservation and chimpanzee protection, Humane Society CEO and President Wayne Pacelle told reporters Friday.
The FWS announcement comes at a time when chimps are in the news for their human-like qualities—notably, their love of good food and good wine. But it doesn't mean that government agencies are insinuating that personhood—granting some human-like legal rights for great apes—is coming for chimps. Ashe told reporters that "this is a recognition that chimpanzees are endangered," adding that he wouldn't read more into the announcement, regarding personhood.
He also confirmed, for those concerned, that chimps will remain in U.S. zoos.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.