In 2015 for the first time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) recognized captive chimpanzees in the USA as belonging to an “endangered” species. Conservationists rejoiced at the promise of extra protection for these apes.
Yet, in the first test of the effect of the newly strengthened protection, USFWS plans a decision that seriously jeopardizes that promise. Its action risks promoting trade in endangered species.
Last month, USFWS announced that it intends to authorize the transfer of eight chimpanzees from Yerkes Research Center (Atlanta), to an unaccredited for-profit zoo in Europe. The intended zoo is Wingham Wildlife Park, U.K. Visitors there pay £70 ($102) to interact with endangered species such as red pandas. For £145 ($212), they hand-feed a tiger. Wingham hopes to import six female and two male chimpanzees for breeding.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) insists that international transfers should be permitted only if they benefit the survival of the species. In this case, there is no such benefit. There is no suggestion of this arrangement leading to reintroduction to the wild.
The Yerkes/Wingham partnership recognized the problem. So they tried to buy their way to conservation. They first offered money to the Kibale Snare Removal Project (KSRP), which protects Uganda chimpanzees. As a Director of KSRP, I was delighted until we learned that the donation was secretly designed to satisfy the provisions of the ESA. We declined the donation.
Yerkes/Wingham offered more money to a gorilla conservation organization. They rejected the offer too.
No reputable conservation organization was likely to accept it. The prospect was too alarming of commercial buyers being able to bribe their way to obtaining endangered species merely by throwing a few dollars towards conservation programs.
So Yerkes/Wingham went elsewhere. They persuaded the Population Sustainability Network (PSN) to accept a sizeable donation. PSN is a Ugandan branch of a U.K. charity advocating for family planning and public health. PSN has never shown any interest in chimpanzees. But, the organization suited Yerkes’ purpose, because they declared themselves willing to design a conservation plan if given six months to find somewhere in Uganda to do it and think up the “specific components.”
That is the plan that has been approved by USFWS. Troublingly, USFWS would have no authority to decide whether the final plan would fit ESA requirements.
So USFWS has acquiesced to the transfer on the basis that money would be sent to a humanitarian organization in a chimpanzee range country that will look for an opportunity to spend unsolicited funds on an unidentified project in which they have no experience and for which there is not yet any justification.
Responses to the proposed export are overwhelmingly negative. Objections have been lodged by such organizations as the U.N. Great Apes Survival Partnership, European Endangered Species Programme, Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums, British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Lincoln Park Zoo, The Bonobo Project, Kenya Wildlife Service, New England Anti-Vivisection Society and International Primatological Society.
There is a consistent theme to the objections. USFWS’s authorization foreshadows an alarming picture. The Yerkes/Wingham plan threatens to grievously wound a consensus that has protected endangered species from commercial exploitation. It heralds a vision of range countries having an easier route to take endangered species from the wild, under the guise of conservation, before passing their lucrative cargo to the highest bidder. Institutions worldwide could pay to acquire chimpanzees, and scores of similarly endangered species, in the name of “conservation.” “Conservation” would become a business that undermines real protections.
What is USFWS thinking? Habitat loss and hunting are rife in the 22 African countries where chimpanzees live. Chimpanzee numbers are plummeting and rich buyers want to obtain them. The monitoring group TRAFFIC estimates wildlife trade garners hundreds of millions of dollars. USFWS knows this. It has traditionally been a supporter of conservation efforts, providing millions for bona fide projects.
There is no need to allow “pay-to-play” with its dangerous precedent and cynical manipulation of the ESA’s intentions. Five accredited U.S. sanctuaries have offered to take the Yerkes’ chimpanzees. The transfer to Wingham should not be approved. In the spirit of the ESA, the chimpanzees should be moved to a U.S. sanctuary, and USFWS should beware of authorizing transfers of endangered species on the basis of commercial interests.
Richard Wrangham, Ph.D.
The Kibale Chimpanzee Project
Richard Wrangham (PhD, Cambridge University, 1975) is Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University and founded the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in 1987. He has conducted extensive research on primate ecology, nutrition, and social behavior.
He is best known for his work on the evolution of human warfare, described in the book Demonic Males, and on the role of cooking in human evolution, described in the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Together with Elizabeth Ross, he co-founded the Kasiisi Project in 1997, and serves as a patron of the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP).