Thursday, October 13, 2011

Captive chimps up for endangered status

A wild adult male chimpanzee, above, at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where Thomas Gillespie's lab is working with the Jane Goodall Institute to understand the pathogens responsible for declining chimp populations. Mahale, a site near Gombe, is one of the confirmed places where human visitors have accidentally infected chimps with fatal respiratory pathogens. Photo by Matthew Heintz.

Currently, it is legal in the United States to keep a chimpanzee as a pet, and to dress the animal up and use it in movies, or for other entertainment purposes. A group of petitioners is seeking to ban those practices, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Jane Goodall Institute, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society. They have asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend endangered status protection to captive chimpanzees in this country.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is now reviewing the matter, and is accepting comments from experts and the general public through October 31.

Thomas Gillespie, a primate disease ecologist at Emory, is among the expert petitioners.

Gillespie, left, speaking at a recent symposium on ape health in Kyoto, Japan.

Following is a letter to the Parks and Wildlife Service from Gillespie:

I am writing in regard to the request for information concerning the status of chimpanzees, and to voice my professional opinion that all chimpanzees, captive and wild, should be correctly classified as an endangered species within the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of the United States.

I am an associate professor of global health and biodiversity conservation with faculty appointments in the Department of Environmental Studies, the Rollins School of Public Health and the program in Population Biology, Ecology and Evolution at Emory University.

Currently, wild chimpanzees are listed as endangered under the ESA, yet captive chimpanzees in the United States are only considered “threatened” and are thereby deprived of the protections afforded to endangered species. Chimpanzees are the only species that suffers such “split-listing,” since all other endangered animal species are afforded endangered status whether wild or captive-born. One unfortunate outcome of this policy loophole is that private citizens can buy and sell chimpanzees as pets or use them for entertainment purposes, activities with demonstrated negative effects on ape welfare and public perception of conservation status.

Wild chimpanzee populations are declining, and a global effort is needed to save the species from extinction. It is important to note that wild chimpanzees are more endangered today than they were in 1990 (when wild populations were listed as endangered, and all threats to chimpanzee survival needed to be addressed.) Thus, the United Stats must do everything in its power to promote chimpanzee conservation, including regulating the use of captive chimpanzees. We send a confusing message to citizens and governments of ape range-states when the United States pushes for increased protection abroad while not protecting chimpanzees domestically.

In addition to my concerns raised above, I would like to elaborate on a threat to wild chimpanzees that relates directly to captive chimpanzees not receiving the protections afforded to all other endangered species. There is now overwhelming evidence that even mildly pathogenic human respiratory pathogens are capable of causing high rates of mortality in wild chimpanzee populations. If precautions are not enforced, tourists and researchers can be responsible for introducing such pathogens to wild chimpanzee populations as we have witnessed repeatedly in recent years.

Although guidelines have been implemented at chimpanzee tourism sites to reduce the risk of transmission of such pathogens, enforcement is variable. Tourists arrive at chimpanzee tourism sites after a lifetime of experiencing countless images of chimpanzees in advertising, films and television programs portraying human-chimpanzee contact and proximity. Many tourists are disappointed when they learn that they will not be allowed to touch or hold a wild chimpanzee. Tourists often push their guides to allow them to get closer to chimpanzees or fail to move away from chimps when they approach as mandated. Guides are put in a difficult situation of wanting to enforce guidelines to protect the apes, but not wanting to risk losing a substantial tip if tourists are disappointed by their experience. This is not a hypothetical situation, this is something that I have witnessed countless times over the past 14 years while conducting research at a diversity of sites in Sub-Saharan African that host chimpanzee tourism.

Thomas Gillespie

A wild view of 'Planet of the Apes'
Gorillas cope with people in their midst

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