The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced its plan to extend protective sanctions for endangered wild chimpanzees to apes that are used for medical studies.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the agency will classify all chimpanzees as endangered, including those living in captivity and in the wild. Previously apes that were kept in captivity were only classified as threatened, while those living in forests were already considered as endangered.

This will effectively prohibit the import, export and trade of the animals across state lines and overseas without proper permits from the agency. It will also restrict the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research.

The implementation of the sanctions is expected to take effect after a three-month grace period, which will end in September.

Experts believe the agency's move will have an impact on the practice of animal testing in the United States. The country is known as one of only a few developed nations in the world that still conduct testing on chimpanzees for research.

"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," Dan Ashe, director of the USFWS, said.

"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."

Ashe added that the previous rules promoted the concept of treating the chimpanzees as commodities.

While the agency will prohibit the involvement of the animals in testing, some research could still be allowed to continue.

According to the new guidelines, permits will be issued only for scientific studies that will benefit chimpanzees in the wild, or those that will help improve the survival or propagation of the species. These include the restoration of habitats and research on the animals in the wild that will contribute to the improvement of recovery and management programs.

The USFWS said it will also work closely with the biomedical research community regarding the issuance of permits for studies on chimpanzees that are considered essential, such as those involving HIV research and other epidemics.

Members of the international conservation group Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) have been petitioning for the extension of sanctions for captive-held chimpanzees. They view the USFWS decision as a significant development in protecting the welfare of the animals.

"This is something that so many of us from the animal welfare community have been working on for nearly 25 years," Dr. Jane Goodall, founder of the JGI, said.

"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."

Latest estimates show that there are only around 300,000 chimpanzees in the world left from a high of 1 million a century ago.

In 2013, the National Institutes of Health announced that it will retire 400 of the chimpanzees it has used for biomedical research, keeping only around 50 of the animals for research purposes. The agency, however, is still looking for a sanctuary to place the animals as there is no more available space in Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Louisiana for chimpanzees no longer needed in laboratories, the entertainment industry or as pets.

Photo: Chi King | Flickr 

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