“The rule proposed today would correct this inconsistency,” the agency said, adding that the rule will be open for public comment for 60 days and finalized in December.
Ashe said the new rule sends a clear message that, contrary to popular belief, the survival of all chimps is threatened.
More than a million have disappeared from the wild since the beginning of the 20th century, according to estimates by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Fewer than 300,000 remain, as people invade chimpanzee habitats, using the land to farm and hunting the animals for meat, according to IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
“The most important thing about this is it brings attention to the plight of chimpanzees in the wild,” Ashe said. Because chimps are often dressed in clothing and used as comic relief in movies, Americans do not believe they are endangered, he said.
Ashe said it is unclear how tougher protections for captive chimpanzees would affect NIH research projects or the use of the animals in the entertainment industry or circuses. Those aspects, he said, would be worked out during development of the final rule. But it is all but certain that any future medical research involving chimps would require Fish and Wildlife’s approval and a permit, officials said.
Members of the conservation organizations that requested an endangered listing for captive chimps two years ago — including the Humane Society of the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Jane Goodall Institute — said the change would have a profound effect on restricting the use of chimps in medical research.
They noted that the Fish and Wildlife proposal dovetailed with recent findings by two federal research bodies, the Institute of Medicine and an NIH advisory panel, that it was not necessary to use chimps for research on human diseases.
Classifying all chimps as endangered also would affect the exotic-animal business, which peddles chimps as pets.
Buyers and sellers would be barred from taking chimps across state lines. International commerce would be banned.
“There are breeders who breed them for pets and the entertainment industry . . . dressing them up, and clothes makes people think of them as not endangered,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society.