Veterinarians Involved in Non-Traditional Roles for Conservation: The First International Tapir Symposium
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2002

Sonia M. Hernandez-Divers1, DVM; E. Patricia Medici2

1College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA; 2IPÊ - Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas, São Paulo, Brazil


Traditionally, the involvement of veterinarians in field projects has been limited to “hands-on” techniques such as capture, immobilization, biologic sample collection, diagnostic tests and surgical procedures. While these are integral parts of field conservation projects, veterinarians in the zoo/wildlife field can offer more. The following example of a veterinarian’s involvement in a long-term conservation effort serves to encourage veterinarians to become involved in non-traditional roles in conservation.

The First International Tapir Symposium

The involvement of one of the authors (SHD) with tapirs began as a traditional veterinarian responsible for field immobilization of Baird’s tapirs (Tapirus bairdii) during a basic ecologic study. As the responsibilities increased over the years to include a health evaluation of the radiocollared population, so did the appreciation of the need for active conservation for the Tapirus genus. Understanding that all four species of Tapirus are threatened in some way, it was clear that more information was needed about the forces negatively impacting these animals, and how to prevent them.2 Unfortunately, up until 1995, little was known about even the most basic ecology of this genus. Fortunately, due to the perseverance and success of a handful of hardworking field biologists, several field projects began to surface. Communication among researchers at that time was sparse at best. The Tapir Preservation Fund ( directed by Sheryl Todd served as the only central means of communication for such researchers. In 1999, a group of Tapirus researchers met for the first time at the International Wildlife Management Conference for Amazonia in Bolivia. There the need for the following was outlined:

1.  Improving communication among researchers on field techniques such as capture, immobilization, biologic sample collection and monitoring.

2.  Improving communication between field researchers and captive tapir managers. Up until that point, the involvement of zoos in the sharing of information or support of field projects was minimal.

3.  Implementation of a multidisciplinary approach to conservation that could not be achieved by field biologists alone.

The primary step to fulfill the above needs was to bring all of “tapir specialists” together. Thus, the idea of the First International Tapir Symposium was born. Between 1999–2000, 11 committee members (including two veterinarians) representing several different fields planned and implemented the organization of the First International Tapir Symposium. The committee members agreed that the purpose of the symposium was not only to conduct an overview of current tapir research (in situ and ex situ), conservation, education, husbandry and management issues, but also to provide a venue in which “tapir specialists” could outline conservation issues facing the Tapirus genus and ways to resolve these issues. Participants included researchers, conservationists, husbandry and captive management specialists, governmental and non-governmental organization representatives and other key players in the development and implementation of tapir conservation programs. We had 85 participants, of which 27 were Tapir Specialist Group members (42% of the group).

The basic organization of the symposium included:

1.  The exchange and discussion of current data on field and captive studies through the presentation of papers by current tapir managers, field and captive researchers

2.  The creation of working groups made up of representative tapir managers and researchers who will develop and prioritize key conservation and financial issues affecting the plight of endangered tapir species worldwide

3.  The formulation of a list of specific areas and projects that need attention, synergizing efforts from field and captive communities to maximize worldwide conservation initiatives

4.  The increase of awareness of Tapirus spp. on a global level through scientific, cultural, economic and political programs, utilizing scientific and lay publications, television and educational material

5.  The creation of a global network of tapir researchers and supporters and a plan for them to work together

6.  The implementation of specific action planning in terms of priorities for tapir conservation such as outlining priority key areas, creating task forces and identifying individuals and organizations to lead these task forces and the revision and expansion of the Tapir Action Plan (TAP)

7.  The establishment of a deadline for a future meeting that will evaluate and implement the long-term goals of the symposium.

A significant fact about this conference was the level of zoo participation. Ten years ago, there was little or no collaboration between zoos and tapir field researchers. Today, modern zoos are focusing more on their primary mission of conservation rather than just exhibition. A good example of the modern zoos' new commitment to conservation is the financial support provided to this symposium. Over 80% of the symposium’s budget was covered by donations from four major American zoos (Houston, Los Angeles, Disney and San Diego).

A Working Meeting

What made this conference different from any scientific conference the authors had been involved in was structuring working meetings within the framework of the conference. The five workshops conducted consisted of the following: 1) how to conduct effective fundraising; 2) how to get the Tapirus conservation message out to the general public; 3) a working meeting for the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group in which a representative for each genus was introduced, each with ideas on what issues affected each genus and what needed to be done in the future; 4) how to review and prioritize the 1997 Tapir Action Plan; 5) the division of tasks among groups of individuals in the Tapir Specialist Group to be completed within the next 2 yr. The main theme reinforced throughout the symposium was to utilize the data gathered in field and captive research to formulate an updated document (The Tapir Action Plan) that could illustrate problems facing this genus and most importantly, recommendations to resolve these problems.

The Veterinary Session

The Veterinary Issues/Diseases session illustrated different immobilization methods utilized in Tapirus sp.; the results of the first cytogenetic study of Tapirus terrestris in Colombia; the immobilization of wild Tapirus terrestris in Pontal do Paranapenema, Brazil, and results from ongoing health evaluation from the animals immobilized; the immobilization of captive Tapirus terrestris; the normal respiratory, reproductive and digestive bacterial flora of two captive Tapirus bairdii from the ZooMat Zoo that had recently died; the clinical course, macro- and microscopic findings of a Tapirus bairdii, which died of capture myopathy shortly after its capture in La Sepultura Biosphere Reserve; the identification of ecto- and endoparasites of Tapirus bairdii in Chiapas, Mexico; the anaesthetic protocol when immobilizing free-ranging Tapirus bairdii in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica and the findings of a health evaluation performed on the same animals during a 5-yr period.4

Although information sharing was key, the most noteworthy event for veterinarians at the symposium was a meeting held to discuss our concerns. Some of the issues considered were a) the lack of communication, especially between North and South America; b) the lack of access to other veterinarian’s data, and articles published; c) the need to improve the availability of local vets for ecology projects that need veterinary support; d) the need to discuss, organize and implement the AZA Tapir TAG and IUCN/SSC TSG Veterinary Committee goals; and e) the potential for loss of information when a veterinarian is not involved in a field project. As a result of this meeting, the group of veterinarians have created a list of tasks for the near future. Some of the tasks include making a list of potential functions of veterinarians in research projects, training biologists and veterinary students, improving communications between veterinary and biology/ecology universities, developing a veterinary website and a listserve for tapir-related questions, and making relevant publications available online. Currently, small groups of veterinarians, within the framework of the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group are working on those tasks. Based on the information presented at the meeting, the areas that the IUCN/SSC TSG veterinary advisor should prioritize and support include:

  • Information sharing among veterinarians
  • Reproductive research
  • Infectious disease baseline data
  • Mortality retrospective studies
  • Nutrition research

Summary of the First International Tapir Symposium

Based on the information presented, some of the main conclusions of the conference are as follows: habitat loss and even minimal hunting are the main threats facing the Tapirus genus; the status of Tapirus indicus is largely unknown and needs further attention as habitat loss is a major issue in its range; the status of the population of captive tapirs in North America is such that new genetic material will be needed from either Latin-American zoos or free-ranging populations soon; the habitat and behavior of tapirs continues to be one of the most limiting factors in radiotelemetry studies; more intensive status surveys are necessary to document population declines; the need for biologic corridors between currently protected areas is a priority for many isolated populations which may not be viable; the Tapir Action Plan (1997) is outdated and contains information that should no longer be used for effective conservation management.

Additional Roles Veterinarians Can Play in Conservation Projects

As human populations continue to grow, the habitat of wildlife is threatened in one way or another. This has resulted in the concentration of threatened species in “protected areas,” often surrounded by human populations, agriculture and livestock. The resultant surrounded islands of “protected areas” and populations of animals will undoubtedly lead to a whole host of problems such as disease transmission, lack of genetic diversity, vulnerability of concentrated populations to natural disasters, etc. From a purely medical standpoint, those facts alone are a compelling reason to increase the involvement of the veterinary community in conservation efforts, as veterinarians can serve to resolve some of the issues related to disease.1

In a perfect world, field and bench researchers would carry out and publish their work. Simultaneously, management authorities and other organizations in charge of making the decisions about which areas to protect, what habitat to include, how much land is needed to sustain a viable population of a species, etc, would consult the literature and summarize the needs of a species based on scientific data. At least it was the understanding of one of the authors (SHD; prior to becoming involved in tapir conservation), that conservation decisions and the work that led up to it, was best left to “the experts.” The reality is that we are running out of time and we are lacking too much information. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of another century of field research without simultaneously attacking a variety of other fronts, such as environmental education, land management, socioeconomic reform, captive reproduction, etc. The responsibility to become active in all aspects of conservation falls on the hands of every single one of us.

What Veterinarians Have to Offer: Captive Managers, Researchers, Educators, Facilitators and Policy Builders

As previously mentioned, the belief used to be that conservation was supposed to be left to “the experts.” But why not us? Zoo and wildlife veterinarians can wear many hats in the broad realm of conservation. Most are already captive managers that are responsible for endangered species in zoos. Their role can be further expanded by conducting research in the captive setting and by diffusing the information gained from captive management and research to field researchers and conservation organizations. Surprisingly, much of the information learned about tapirs in captive settings had not trickled down to ecologists, field researchers or wildlife managers. Zoo/wildlife veterinarians are often gregarious and love to teach. We can use these skills to educate both veterinary students in this country and veterinarians in other countries that are unable to receive equivalent training otherwise. Some of the most valuable conservation work we can be involved in does not include travelling and is not glamorous; however, information sharing (answering questions on email, participating in surveys, making articles and other literature available to others, building networks, facilitating so that others in range countries can do the “glamorous” field work) is an integral part of conservation. We have strong interpersonal skills and a large network of contacts that allow us to be active in situations that need intensive communication and information sharing. Our organizational skills have been tested since veterinary school and are valuable assets for planning any event. We are aware of the conservation threats many species face and are enthusiastic about becoming involved to reverse these processes. Through our knowledge and involvement in TAG groups, SSP groups and the IUCN, we can better direct our efforts and aid in policy making. We are creative, resourceful individuals that are practiced in problem solving. We are respected and trusted by our communities and are viewed as stewards of animals. We have a responsibility to become more active in conservation.3

What We are Not and How to Improve

It is important to remember that our veterinary degrees and love of the rare and beautiful do not automatically buy us a ticket into the conservation arena. As veterinarians, we are taught little about ecology or conservation biology, two sciences around which most conservation efforts revolve. For example, how many of us can say we understand how to design an appropriate population status survey? In addition, we are not aware of all the political and socioeconomic issues that surround the conservation of a species. Admittedly, we are often ignorant on basic legal issues and the infrastructure of organizations such as the IUCN and their role in conservation. We are often not involved in policy making and most do not understand the current wildlife legislation and potential future changes. However, we are united by our hunger to learn. It is our responsibility to build upon that basic foundation by teaching ourselves the natural history, ecology, political and socioeconomic issues that threaten biodiversity in our planet. Just as ecologists are recognizing animal disease as another important hub in the ecology and status of populations, we must recognize we have a lot to learn. At the very least this requires reading other journals such as Ecology or Conservation Biology and attending non-veterinary conferences, but it may also require further education.


Through the involvement of one the authors (SHD) in the tapir project (Proyecto Danta) and without knowing it, the role of a veterinarian changed from being a clinician, to a researcher, to a facilitator of information, an organizer, and a policy builder. Through the involvement in the organization of the First International Tapir Symposium, the intricacies of the IUCN/SSC and the importance of synergizing the efforts of many different types of professionals to achieve a common goal came to light. As part of the responsibilities of a TAG veterinary advisor and a IUCN/SSC, Tapir Specialist Group veterinary consultant (SHD), and by working side by side with ICUN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group Chair (EPM), it is hoped that the issues outlined in the First International Tapir Symposium are addressed and resolved.


We would like to acknowledge the major donors of the First International Tapir Symposium: The Houston Zoo, The Zoological Society of San Diego, The Ledder Family Charitable Trust, The World Conservation Union, Los Angeles Zoo, Wildlife Trust, Conservation International, Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Tapir Preservation Fund. Aside from the authors, committee members that worked tirelessly on this Symposium were Rick Barongi, Dr. Don Janssen, Heidi Frohring, Michael Dee, Lewis Greene, Sharon Matola, Phil Schaeffer and Sheryl Todd. The primary author (SHD) would like to acknowledge the encouragement and support to expand into non-traditional roles in conservation received, either by example, or directly, from Drs. Roberto Aguilar, Don Janssen, Robin Radcliffe and Steve Ososfsky.

Literature Cited

1.  Daszak, P., A.A. Cunningham, and A.D. Hyatt. 2000. Emerging infectious diseases of wildlife—threats to biodiversity and human health. Science. 287:443–449.

2.  Hilton-Taylor, C. (compiler). 2001. 2001 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, UK.

3.  Mainka, S.A. The veterinarian’s role in biodiversity conservation. 2001. J Zoo Wildl Med. 32(2):165–167.

4.  Proceedings of the First International Tapir Symposium. 2001.


Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Sonia M. Hernandez-Divers, DVM
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Georgia
Athens, GA, USA

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