Conservationists are concerned that pressure to come up with an AIDS vaccine will reduce the already thinning population of wild chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are used for biomedical research in several countries around the world because of their similarity to humans - 99 percent of the chimps' genetic makeup overlaps with that of man.
Meanwhile, the total wild-chimp population in Africa, the only continent where the species are indigenous, has dropped to between 100,000 and 200,000, according to Geza Teleki, chairman of the Committee for Conservation and Care of Chimpanzees, a group of international scientists and chimp experts. Fifty years ago there were millions.
The Jane Goodall Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Humane Society filed a petition in November with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to get the two threatened chimp species reclassified as endangered. In the United States, chimpanzees have been considered threatened, but not endangered, since 1976. Both categories are covered by the Endangered Species Act.
The service so far has said that the petition contains ``substantial information indicating that the requested action may be warranted.'' It will issue an initial finding later this year after receiving public comment. A final decision will be made after a second round of public comment.
Some scientists say chimps are invaluable for AIDS research.
``They are the only animals in which HIV [human immunodeficiency virus] will grow ... although the animals don't get sick from it,'' says Thomas Wolfle, director of the Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources at the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Wolfle says no chimps have died from the disease.
Animal-welfare groups claim the chimps' genetic similarities with man and the species' intelligence and human-like behavior make the use of these animals for medical research particularly unethical.
But several conservation groups make clear that they are not opposed to AIDS research that uses chimpanzees already being held for research, provided they are well cared for. It is the capture of more wild chimps that they oppose. Dr. Teleki says that for every wild chimpanzee that is captured and successfully exported, five to 10 die in the process from disease, in transit - or because sometimes hunters shoot the mother chimp to capture the baby.
According to Robert Whitney, director of the Office of Animal Care and Use at the National Institutes of Health, there have been internal discussions at the NIH about developing ``sources'' of the animals in Africa. But he says the result of the discussions was that the NIH would continue its policy of not importing any.
For the conservationists, one of the most alarming figures in their petition is the severe drop in the Western African wild-chimp population from 1 million to 17,000 in the past 50 years. The reasons they cite for the decline, in addition to medical research, are that jungle habitats are being destroyed and that chimps have been hunted for food and captured for commercial purposes.
Making the chimpanzee an endangered species would ``send a significant conservation message that the US is committed to the spirit and the intent of the Endangered Species Act,'' says Ronald Nowak, a zoologist in the Office of Scientific Authority of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
``It would strengthen the hand of African countries that are under tremendous pressure to have their chimps taken out of the country,'' says Curtis Bohlen, senior vice-president of the World Wildlife Fund.
``There is a possibility a few of us might come under a lot of pressure'' over the chimpanzee issue, a Fish and Wildlife Service employee says.
In conjunction with some outspoken biomedical professionals, conservationists are also trying to protect the chimps by preventing relaxation of an endangered-species treaty signed by most Western and some African countries.
The treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), places chimpanzees in a category equivalent to the US endangered species list. It requires that authorized signatures be obtained from both the importing and exporting countries whenever a transaction involving any listed species or products from that species takes place.
A case involving the leading Austrian pharmaceuticals firm, IMMUNO AG, is an example of activities that conservationists are trying to head off.
In 1986, IMMUNO imported from Sierra Leone 20 chimpanzees allegedly caught in the wild. In January 1988, the CITES secretariat issued a formal statement saying that the export from Sierra Leone did not ``meet the requirements'' of the convention and that the importation into Austria ``was contrary to'' the convention. Thus, it said, the transaction ``was a violation of the provisions of the convention and also contrary to its spirit.''
Teleki and other conservationists say there are indications that scientists affiliated with the National Institutes of Health have been involved in research in Austria using those chimpanzees. But Dr. Whitney of the NIH says that the institutes have had nothing to do with the animals.
Currently, wild-caught and captive-born chimpanzees cannot be imported into the US, even for scientific purposes, without a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Captive animals and products from them (such as blood serums) already inside the US have been exempt, however, from the requirement for a permit to move them in interstate commerce.
If the status of the chimpanzee were changed, controls on imports would remain essentially the same. But transportation of chimps in the US and products from them would no longer be exempt from the permit requirement.
In this case, conservationists worry that more stringent regulation of transport might actually increase the demand for chimps, because it would become harder to share them among facilities.
``A number of things might be done'' to alleviate the problem of transporting chimps within the US, says Dr. Nowak of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
``Permits could be issued to persons wanting to move chimpanzees about in the US,'' he says. Then a permit would not be required every time a chimp or blood serum was moved. If that were done, ``there would seem to be no adverse effects on research on chimps already in captivity.''
In a telephone interview from England, Jane Goodall, who is well known for having lived among wild chimps in Africa for 25 years, steered clear of pitting AIDS research against the future of wild chimpanzees. ``In some places in Europe, there are statements coming out that the chimp is not appropriate for AIDS research,'' she said.
``Hopefully, soon it will not be necessary to use chimps in labs because of alternative methods ... you know we can be pretty jolly ingenius,'' she says.