Which Great Apes are Endangered, and why does it matter?

I know it’s the weekend, but get out your paper because it’s time for a little Pop Quiz.

Which of the following are endangered?

(a) Chimpanzees

(b) Orangutans

(c) Gorillas

(d) All of the above

You can breathe now…it was only one question!

As a primate enthusiast, you may be aware that the correct answer is (d) All of the above. However, this fact is not well known to everyone. In 2005, a survey of visitors at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo asked respondents to take a similar quiz and select which apes they believed to be endangered: 95% said gorillas, 91% chose orangutans, but only 66% picked chimpanzees. When asked why people thought that chimpanzees were not endangered, the most common reason given was that chimps are commonly seen on television, in advertisements, and movies, and so must not be in jeopardy.  Later surveys conducted at different zoos showed similar results. (To find more, click here)

We know that the public’s perception of whether or not an animal is endangered is important because conservation efforts are supported in great part by general members of society.  The widespread use of chimpanzees in the entertainment industry has led to a popular view that chimpanzees are simply amusing creatures that are fun to watch and enjoy interacting with us.

The reality is that wild chimpanzee populations are suffering from many factors that threaten their continued existence in the wild. Deforestation, disease, exploitation for the pet trade, and harvesting for the bush meat industry are just a few of the factors that have led our country to designate the wild chimpanzee as “Endangered.”  Images of chimpanzees affected by these issues are far from cute, and many people would be shocked to know the type of traumas suffered by chimpanzees on a regular basis.

There is no question that wild chimpanzees are endangered, and once the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) designates a species as “Endangered,” that animal becomes well protected by law. For instance, an endangered animal cannot be harmed in any way, sold or transferred in and out of the country without special permission, or used for commercial purposes.  Because wild chimpanzees are endangered, it seems logical that all chimpanzees would have these rights, but in fact, they do not.  The USFWS made a special provision in 1990 listing chimpanzees as endangered in the wild, but “threatened” in captivity. No other species has such a dual designation. Ultimately, the status of “threatened” means that there are less rules regarding the captive chimpanzee population, and so chimps in our country can still be used for medical research, as TV and print celebrities, and yes, even as pets.

The vast majority of primatologists do not believe that chimpanzees should be used for our entertainment or as pets. They are highly intelligent, highly social animals but should not be treated as miniature human beings. As we can see by the surveys conducted at local zoos, when people see chimpanzees in movies and on television, they do not realize that wild chimpanzees are suffering severe losses in numbers every year. We need the average American to understand this problem and support conservation efforts to stop the loss. Further, we need the United States to take a stand and put restrictions on the way chimpanzees are used in our country.

Although many US agencies promote chimpanzee conservation in the wild, the US is the only developed nation to continue to actively use chimpanzees for biomedical research, and we are the primary country involved in breeding and exploiting chimps for the entertainment and pet industry.  It is time that we set an example to the world to end captive chimpanzee exploitation, and the first step is convincing the USFWS to change the status of captive chimpanzee from threatened to ENDANGERED!

The good news is that the USFWS is currently reviewing a petition put together by a variety of primate-friendly agencies, such as the Jane Goodall Institute, American Zoological Association, and the Humane Society of the United States, who are all advocating this change.  Many other agencies are submitting scientific data to support the cause, and we are keeping fingers crossed that the USFWS will take this first step towards better protection for a primate that shares nearly 99% of our own genetic code.

We will be sure to keep you posted on new developments to this issue!

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