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The most recent Ebola epidemic is the largest in history, but smaller outbreaks have been erupting at least since the 1970s. Ebola is a zoonosis, a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people, and by some measures its impact on animal populations has been even more dramatic than its effect on the people of west Africa. Hard numbers are hard to come by, but some conservationists estimate that Ebola has wiped out around a third of the world’s wild chimpanzees and gorillas over the past few decades.
Peter Walsh, a wildlife biologist spearheading an experimental chimpanzee vaccine project, is trying to find a way to protect the rest. Walsh is a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Cambridge, but to do this work he’s come to the New Iberia Research Center, part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It’s the largest primate-research facility in the United States.Now he’s leading a research project that many believe shouldn’t exist. 2011, the Institute of Medicine issued a report concluding that most biomedical research using chimpanzees was unnecessary.In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified captive chimpanzees as “endangered,” a move that forbids scientists to use them for medical research.One key difference: Walsh’s chimpanzees aren’t being poked and prodded in the service of human medicine. The work is on behalf of the chimps themselves, part of a plan that Walsh believes may be vital to the survival of their species. With the new Fish and Wildlife rule, though, the future of that plan is uncertain.