Instead of sending eight of its chimpanzees to an accredited sanctuary in the U.S., the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, part of Emory University, entered into an agreement to export these chimpanzees to the Wingham Wildlife Park, an unaccredited zoo in the U.K. In November, just two months after recognizing that chimpanzees are an endangered species and entitled to full protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was poised to approve the issuance of a permit for the export of the eight chimpanzees for exhibition and possible breeding.
A public comment period was available prior to issuance of this decision, and thousands of comments were submitted protesting this transfer, including protests from many sanctuaries and primate experts—and NAVS. The FWS added an additional 30-day comment period on this transfer before making a final determination, in response to a lawsuit filed in federal court by a coalition of animal advocacy groups, sanctuaries and individuals asking that the transfer be stopped. In its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, this lawsuit charges that the FWS violated requirements of the ESA and its obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna in issuing a permit for the export of endangered captive chimpanzees.
Furthermore, the lawsuit charges that the FWS violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to conduct an environmental assessment or impact statement that would consider the adverse impact of its decision on efforts to conserve chimpanzees in the wild.
The FWS approved the transfer of these two male and six female chimpanzees to the zoo, even though endangered species export permits may be issued only for “scientific purposes that benefit the species in the wild, or to enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species.” Under FWS guidelines, “Beneficial actions that have been shown to support or enhance survival of chimpanzees include habitat restoration and research on chimpanzees in the wild that contributes to improved management and recovery.” Sending eight chimpanzees from a research center in the U.S. to a zoo in the U.K. does not meet these guidelines.
The export permit application stated that Yerkes and Wingham Wildlife Park would donate money each year for five years to the Wildlife Conservation Society and Kibale Chimpanzee Project to promote chimpanzee conservation and protection in the wild. However, both organizations refused to accept these donations because they oppose the transfer of these chimpanzees. A substitute donation has been proposed to the Population & Sustainability Network, an organization that deals primarily with educating women in underdeveloped countries about reproductive health and rights, which has little to do with promoting chimpanzee conservation as required under law.
The primary objections to the move can be summarized as follows:
- Chimpanzees are an endangered species and should no longer be used solely for commercial purposes.
- The Wingham Wildlife Park is a for-profit wildlife exhibitor.
- Transferring these chimpanzees from Yerkes to a U.K. zoo violates the intent of the ESA.
- Chimpanzees no longer needed for research by a federal research facility should be sent to a U.S. sanctuary, several of which have offered to take these animals.
The export of even eight chimpanzees for commercial purposes is a terrible precedent being set by the FWS for the application of the ESA. It calls into question how the clear language of the statute is being interpreted and what, if anything, the new endangered species listing means for hundreds of chimpanzees awaiting retirement from laboratories around the country.