Primary Causes of Morbidity and Mortality in Wild Versus Captive Lowland Tapirs (Tapirus terrestris)—A Model Comparison for Other Tapir Species
2018 Joint EAZWV/AAZV/Leibniz-IZW Conference
Dawn M. Zimmerman1,2, DVM, MSc; Renata Carolina Fernandes Santos2,3, DVM, MSc; Dorothée Ordonneau2,4, DVM; Emília Patrícia Medici2,3,5, PhD
1Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Washington, DC, USA; 2International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Species Survival Commission (SSC), Tapir Specialist Group (TSG), Campo Grande, MS, Brazil; 3Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative (LTCI), Institute for Ecological Research (IPÊ), Nazaré Paulista, SP, Brazil; 4CERZA Lisieux Zoo, Hermival Les Vaux, Calvados, France; 5Escola Superior de Conservação Ambiental e Sustentabilidade (ESCAS/IPÊ), Nazaré Paulista, SP, Brazil


The Tapiridae family is comprised of four species—three of which are endangered. Listed as vulnerable,3 the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) has been intensely studied, offering health data that can be used as a baseline for those in human care, as well as other wild tapir species. The Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative (LTCI) is a long-term conservation program established in Brazil in 1996 and is unique in having 22 years of cumulative health data on wild lowland tapir populations.1,2 Health data from 142 wild lowland tapirs from three Brazilian biomes—Atlantic Forest (AF), Pantanal (PA), and Cerrado (CE)—was collected between 1996 and 2017. The study included physical, hematological and biochemical evaluations, microbiological cultures, urinalyses, and serologic analyses for antibodies against 13 infectious agents (viral and bacterial). Antibodies against bluetongue virus and Leptospira interrogans were detected in both AF, PA and CE biomes, with significantly different prevalence between sites and/or biomes. Physical abnormalities in the AF and PA were suspected to be primarily age-related (e.g., tooth wear, peripheral corneal opacity) or linked to social behavior (e.g., scars, wounds) rather than disease, and tapirs were generally considered healthy in these biomes. However, physical examinations in the CE showed some remarkable alterations, particularly in tapirs’ teeth, which included tooth loss, fractures, periodontitis, and gingival retraction in 57% of captured individuals. Poor body conditions and traumatic findings, believed to be more environmental related than behaviorally linked, were also more significant in the CE. The Cerrado is one of the most threatened Brazilian biomes, and threats to tapirs include deforestation, exposure to domestic animals, road-kill on highways, poaching, fire and environmental contamination by pesticides. Overall, data collected in LTCI studies from three different Brazilian biomes—each undergoing different levels of environmental disturbance—has demonstrated that tapir health is strongly associated with the environment in which they live.

In comparison, health surveys performed in 2014 on the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) captive lowland tapir population highlighted two major issues: respiratory diseases and skin diseases. The etiology of both appeared multifactorial, primarily a combination of infectious causes and husbandry factors. Further comparison to health surveys on Malayan tapirs in North America and Europe indicates that this species is more sensitive to skin and digestive issues in captivity than lowland tapirs. Concerning infectious diseases, no specific agent is reportedly more problematic than another; however, tuberculosis remains a major concern—not due to prevalence, which appears quite low, but due to lack of a reliable diagnostic test, zoonotic potential, and possible consequences of transferring infected animals within the breeding program. Further integrative studies on respiratory, gastrointestinal, and skin diseases are needed to clearly evaluate etiologies related to infectious agents and management conditions.

Over the last two decades, our knowledge of tapir medicine has significantly improved thanks to a variety of in situ and ex situ research projects, observations, and scientific contributions from biologists, veterinarians, and other wildlife professionals. Current data on lowland tapirs suggests that environmental conditions play a significant role in tapir health—both in the wild as well as in human care. In the wild, increased exposure to domestic and feral animals, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss have been associated with increased disease risk. In captivity, while etiologies of some respiratory and skin diseases may remain unknown (e.g., vesicular skin disease), the most common clinical conditions are believed to be linked to suboptimal husbandry management. Proper management and research of captive tapirs can significantly contribute to in situ conservation programs, substantiating disease risk analysis, reintroduction and translocation best practices, and disease outbreak prediction and prevention. In addition, data from the wild can contribute to tapir care in captivity. Therefore, integrating in situ and ex situ data and information is essential for the study of tapir health and conservation.


The authors wish to acknowledge the efforts of the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group, the AZA Tapir Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), and the EAZA Tapir Taxon Advisory Group (TAG).

Literature Cited

1.  Mangini PR, Medici EP, Fernandes-Santos RC. Tapir health and conservation medicine. Integrative Zool. 2012;7(4):331–345.

2.  Medici EP, Mangini PR, Fernandes-Santos RC. Health assessment of wild lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) populations in the Atlantic forest and Pantanal biomes, Brazil (1996–2012). J Wildl Dis. 2014;50(4):817–828.

3.  Naveda A, de Thoisy B, Richard-Hansen C, Torres DA, Salas L, Wallance R, Chalukian S, de Bustos S. Tapirus terrestris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008:e.T21474A9285933. (VIN editor: Original link was modified as of 5-4-19).


Speaker Information
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Dawn M. Zimmerman, DVM, MSc
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Washington, DC, USA

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