A proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move chimpanzees from "threatened" status to "endangered" status in order to protect the dwindling population should be quickly adopted and aggressively enforced.

Officials have been concerned over the declining chimpanzee population for nearly a decade, but the concern has not kept the primates from dying off. Today, there are only 200,000 chimpanzees left in the world.The chimpanzee population is shrinking, along with the populations of all monkeys and apes, because tropical forests are being destroyed and the animals are being hunted. Many foreign hunters trap the animals for export to other countries, including the United States.

If chimpanzees are put on the endangered list, it at least becomes more difficult to remove them from their habitat.

Naming chimpanzees an endangered species will not eliminate their critical role in biomedical research. American labs currently use about 1,200 chimpanzees in AIDS research. However, most of these chimpanzees are bred in captivity for just that purpose.

Chimpanzees are used in the research because they are 99 percent genetically similar to human and thus the only animal that has been found to routinely become infected with the AIDS virus.

International primate trade is a large, and often, cruel business. Ardith Eudey, a primatologist from the University of Nevada, once said that half or more of the primates captured for international trade may die by the time they reach their destinations or shortly thereafter.

Such a death rate is inhumane when there are large populations. It becomes tragic when survival of an entire species is at stake.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should move quickly to curtail the capture and importation of chimpanzees before they become a rarity only seen in zoos and wildlife books.