WASHINGTON (AP) — The Fish and Wildlife Service Tuesday called for protection of all chimpanzees as endangered, an action that could affect use of the apes in medical research.
The agency's plan would do away with a "split listing" that has labeled wild chimps as endangered but those in captivity as threatened, a status that offers less protection. The agency said that if made final, the proposal would require a special permit to use chimps in medical research or to sell them interstate.
About 2,000 chimps are held in captivity in the United States, about half for medical research.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the proposal corrects an "inconsistency" that assigns a separate legal status for captive chimps and those in the wild.
"Chimpanzees are one of the world's most iconic species because of their connections and similarity to humans," Ashe said in a statement. "Our hope is that this proposal will ignite renewed public interest in the status of chimpanzees in the wild."
Threats to chimps from habitat loss, poaching and disease have intensified since wild populations were listed as endangered in 1990, Ashe said.
Primatologist Jane Goodall, who was among those who petitioned for the change in legal status, hailed the proposal as "exceptional news for all chimpanzees," as well as for groups that have been seeking to offer them more protections, including the Humane Society of the United States.
"This decision gives me hope that we truly have begun to understand that our attitudes toward treatment of our closest living relatives must change," Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a world-renowned expert on chimps, said in a statement.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will work with the National Institutes of Health, zoos and other groups to consider implications of the new listing. The new rule would require anyone seeking to use chimps in biomedical research to show that the work is being done to enhance the species, or that the applicant is doing other work to enhance the species. Such activities could include research on chimp diseases or payments to increase conservation activities for wild chimps in Africa and other places.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has awarded more than $8 million since 2001 to support conservation efforts to protect chimpanzees in 19 countries, primarily though the Great Ape Conservation Fund.
The Goodall Institute and other groups petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 to list all chimpanzees as endangered, prompting a formal review of the ape's status under the Endangered Species Act. The agency will accept comments through mid-August, with a final decision expected next year.
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