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Director's Corner

Dan Ashe served as FWS Director from June 2011 until January 2017. The following is an archive of blogs authored by Director Ashe during that time. This content is intended for historical reference only and not as a representation of current Service policy or opinion.

Protecting the Chimpanzee Here and Abroad

I recently returned from Africa, where I saw firsthand the threats facing many of the continent’s most beloved wildlife species. Meeting with dedicated people and organizations working on the ground to protect wild populations of elephants, rhinos, and great apes helped me understand just how much the support and leadership of the United States means in this fight.

But it was the wild chimpanzees I didn’t see, actually, that reinforced what the Fish and Wildlife Service’s exhaustive, two year-long review of the status of the chimpanzee has found. Our recent review confirms that the chimpanzee is in trouble, and needs strong Endangered Species Act protections both in the wild and in captivity.

Mother and baby chimp climbing in tree. The baby is touching its mother's chin.
Chimpanzees Bahati and her baby Baroza at Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Credit: © the Jane Goodall Institute

That’s why we’ve taken action to protect all chimpanzees as endangered. 

I’m honored to make this announcement with the support of Dr. Jane Goodall, legendary for her research on chimpanzees in the wild for more than four decades. Like Dr. Goodall and the organization she founded, the Jane Goodall Institute, our focus is on protecting and recovering wild populations of chimpanzees. But we’ve come to realize that wild chimpanzees’ status cannot be separated from those held in captivity.

Here is an interview I did on chimpanzees.

Wild populations of chimpanzees are scattered across 22 countries in equatorial Africa. Throughout the chimpanzees’ range, its forest habitat is being destroyed and fragmented by encroaching human populations. 

Along with increasing habitat loss, widespread poaching for meat, capture of infant chimpanzees for the pet trade, and outbreaks of disease are impeding chimpanzees’ ability to sustain viable populations in the wild. 

Scientists estimate that between 300,000 and 431,000 chimpanzees remain, down from millions at the turn of the 20th century. This does not include a recent decline in the population of chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire.

The chimpanzee could soon vanish from an additional four countries: Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, and Guinea–Bissau. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially protected chimpanzees as a threatened species under the ESA in 1976.  In 1990, we reclassified wild chimpanzees as endangered, but retained a threatened classification for chimpanzees held in captivity.

At the time, we felt it was important to encourage captive breeding of chimpanzees to expand the population and reduce incentives to capture chimpanzees from the wild. Keeping captive animals listed as threatened under the ESA also allowed for certain biomedical activities to continue, including sale, import and export, and take of captive chimpanzees. 

With the benefit of hindsight, we’ve now realized that this decision was a mistake. Two years ago, we began reevaluating our 1990 decision and determined that the ESA does not allow for captive-held animals to be assigned separate protected status from their wild counterparts, solely by virtue of their captivity. 

After reviewing and incorporating information provided by a wealth of public comments on our 2013 proposal to extend endangered protections to captive chimpanzees, we are moving forward to finalize that proposal.

Extending captive chimpanzees the protections afforded to their endangered cousins in the wild will, where the activities fall under the auspices of the ESA, enable us to ensure that actions affecting those chimpanzees enhance the survival of the species in the wild.

It’s important to understand that this change will not end private ownership of chimpanzees, or interfere with their routine care. However, owners wishing to sell chimpanzees across state lines, or to import or export a captive chimpanzee or any of its parts, will need to meet very specific criteria and obtain a permit from the Service.

The ESA also prohibits inhumane treatment of protected species through its take prohibition. Any activities resulting in take of captive chimpanzees—those likely to result in distress, injury or harm—would require a permit. 

Individuals and organizations will need to demonstrate that the activity for which they are requesting a permit would enhance the species in the wild, or support scientific research that benefits wild chimpanzees. This can include habitat restoration and research that contributes to improved management and recovery of wild populations.

I want to stress that our focus as an agency remains on protecting wild chimpanzees and contributing to their survival and recovery. To date, through the Great Ape Conservation Fund, we have provided 152 grants totaling $9.4 million to support on-the ground projects in 19 countries. These funds have been matched by $11.5 million in leveraged funds from conservation organizations and other local partners.

We’ve been working closely over the past two years with the National Institutes of Health, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the biomedical research community, and other affected parties to help them understand the implications of the final rule on their operations.

We will continue that coordination as we implement our permitting process. We encourage anyone with questions to consult our website, which outlines permit requirements and processes.

As global citizens, we all have a stake in ensuring that chimpanzees and other imperiled species thrive both in the wild and in captivity. And in our interconnected, global world, we’re a part of human society that shares the landscape with them. That’s why today’s action is an important step forward.

Thank you Dan Ashe and your colleagues at U.S. Fish and Wildlife for this critical decision and confirmation that captive chimpanzees share the endangered status of their wild counterparts. Tears of happiness for what this means for our species cousins!
# Posted By Sheryl Jackson | 6/15/15 9:11 PM

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