The Veterinarian’s Role in Species-Based Conservation: The Jaguar (Panthera onca) as an Example
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2002
Sharon L. Deem, DVM, PhD, DACZM; William B. Karesh, DVM
Field Veterinary Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY, USA



Jaguars (Panthera onca) are the largest felid species in the New World and the only member of the genus Panthera, the roaring cats, that occurs in the Americas. They are the third largest cat species, being outsized only by lions, (P. leo) and tigers (P. tigris). The body weight of jaguars is 90–120 kg for males and 60–90 kg for females, with a large variation in body size. Historically the range of jaguars was the southern United States through Central and South America as far south as southern Argentina. Their current range is limited to a broad belt from central Mexico through Central America to Northern Argentina.17 It is approximated that 10,000 jaguars are left in the wild with an unknown number in captivity throughout Central and South America.

The biggest conservation threats for jaguars are due to habitat fragmentation and hunting of “problem cats” (due to a real or perceived high level of livestock predation). Although the specific health threats to free-ranging jaguars are largely unknown at this time, they are probably similar to those cited for the health concerns of wildlife in general and include anthropogenic influences, often associated with increased contact that wildlife have with livestock, domestic carnivores, and humans, as well as habitat fragmentation and contamination of their habitats.7

Many infectious and non-infectious diseases have been documented in captive jaguars. Non-infectious problems include a high incidence of neoplasia which may be associated with husbandry in captivity and/or longevity. Many infectious agents have been documented to cause morbidity and/or mortality including protozoan,5 bacterial,1 and viral pathogens (i.e., canine distemper, feline infectious peritonitis)2,12. Additionally, there is serologic evidence of infection with canine distemper and feline immunodeficiency virus.2-4 It is also assumed that jaguars are susceptible to the common respiratory disease agents of domestic and non-domestic cats.

Unlike in Africa where a number of studies have provided information on the health status and diseases of free-ranging large cats and other carnivores, few studies have been conducted on the health status of jaguars in the wild, with the majority of data on parasite infection and infestation.14,15 Although the solitary nature of jaguars may minimize epidemic levels of contagious diseases (i.e., Sarcoptes and canine distemper), it is assumed that the same diseases as seen in African carnivores may cause health-related problems in free-ranging jaguars.

In 1999, the Field Veterinary Program (FVP) of the Wildlife Conservation Society was approached by the Jaguar Advisory Group of the newly developed Jaguar Conservation Program. The Jaguar Conservation Program focus is on:

1.  The establishment of long-term ecologic studies of jaguars in various habitats and across a range of human impacts

2.  Population status and distribution surveys in critical areas and regions where jaguar status is unknown

3.  Jaguar-livestock predation research projects and rancher outreach to minimize conflicts with jaguars

4.  Monitoring programs to assess and respond to changes in jaguar populations, their prey and habitats

5.  Health and genetics components of jaguar populations to inform research and conservation actions

6.  Range-wide education materials about jaguars and threats to their survival18

The FVP was asked to develop animal handling guidelines and to incorporate a health and disease monitoring program as a part of this species-based conservation program.

Jaguar Health Program

In October 1999, as an initial overview we presented to the Jaguar Advisory Group a working outline and plan of how our group of FVP veterinarians can and should contribute to a program directed at species-based conservation. To prepare for this presentation, an initial literature search was performed to determine what was currently known about the health status of free-ranging jaguars and to compare this with information on captive jaguars and other wild and captive large felids. During this initial search, it became clear that very little information on the health of free-ranging jaguars was available in the English, Spanish, and Portuguese literature. However, by emphasizing the role that disease has played as one obstacle to the long-term conservation of other free-ranging carnivore populations, such as canine distemper in lions,16 and rabies in African wild dogs,13 the importance of a veterinary component to this species-based conservation initiative was appreciated by the members of the Jaguar Advisory Group.

A key component of this initial presentation was emphasizing how the Jaguar Health Program would be executed. First, it was stressed that the main advantages to incorporating veterinary specialists into this species-based conservation program were:

1.  To provide standardized methods for safe jaguar handling and to assess the overall health status of jaguars in the wild

2.  To determine disease threats to jaguars including both direct threats (i.e., infectious diseases - intraspecific and conspecific via domestic animals, livestock, other free-ranging felids, prey items) and indirect threats (i.e., habitat fragmentation and degradation that may increase disease risks)

3.  To provide recommendations, based on findings from the health assessment, for the long-term management and conservation of jaguars

Further, these objectives (advantages) were presented more specifically as to how the Field Veterinary Program staff would provide “products” for the Jaguar Conservation Program including:

1.  Veterinary assistance at field sites

2.  A manual with standardized immobilization techniques and biomaterial handling methods

3.  A centralized sample storage and dispensing site and contacts with veterinary laboratories that are experienced in non-domestic felid diagnostics

4.  A bibliography on health and disease of captive and free-ranging jaguars

5.  Distribution of all written materials in English, Spanish, and Portuguese

6.  The incorporation of health-related issues into policy development in conservation initiatives

One challenge to this program has been the nebulous line that separates captive and free-ranging jaguars in Latin America. In this region there are a number of projects that translocate “problem” cats and others that house confiscated jaguars, under less than hygienic conditions, with the intention of reintroduction. Few of these programs consider health prior to animal movements. Therefore, the risk that diseases in these captive jaguars may become the diseases present in the wild population must be addressed. For this reason, in September 2001 we presented the topic of animal movements and disease at the biannual wildlife biologist’s meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, reaching hundreds of Latin American conservationists.8 The risk associated with animal movement projects for jaguars, as well as other wildlife in Latin America, was a new concept for many individuals that attended the presentation. Education of the biologists performing field research is one major component of the jaguar health program.

To date, our program has distributed a manual, made recommendations for incorporation of health studies into a number of jaguar field projects, performed disease surveys of conspecific species (domestic cats/dogs, small carnivores)9,11 and prey items (brocket deer10 and armadillos), and provided veterinary support for jaguars in captivity in various Latin American countries. The manual is available on the web ( health manual.pdf)6 (VIN editor: Original link not accessible 2–09–2021) or as a hard copy (from the FVP) in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. This manual provides information for the safe immobilization of jaguars in field conditions, as well as troubleshooting for anesthetic emergencies. Additionally, it provides information on the proper methods for the collection, storage, and transportation of biomaterials that are necessary for population health evaluations. The manual is intended for field biologists working with the jaguar conservation program, and that have experience with large cat field immobilizations. We emphasize in the manual that a wildlife veterinarian should always be included in any field project that involves jaguar handling. However, often this is not the case in many Latin American countries and many of these projects are executed without direct input from veterinarians. By distributing the manual and discussions with researchers, our role has been to minimize this less-than-ideal situation and to educate those performing the field work, whether they be biologists or veterinarians.

In conjunction with the Jaguar Conservation Program, which provides small grants to a number of researchers, we in the Jaguar Health Program have contacted small grant recipients and stressed the importance, and ease, of opportunistic collection of biomaterials such as feces (i.e., for parasitic and nutritional analyses) and hair (i.e., for genetic analyses), as well as necropsy procedures. If appropriate personnel (i.e., veterinarians) are available when handling jaguars, we also discuss the collection of more invasive (i.e., blood, biopsies) biomaterials for health assessments.


The Jaguar Health Program is one example of how veterinary medicine can and should be integrated into conservation initiatives. Multi-disciplinary teams that include biologists and veterinarians should work for the common goal of conservation. In the Jaguar Health Program example, we are providing veterinary support to minimize possible negative effects associated with conservation itself (i.e., safe immobilizations and an appreciation for the introduction of anthropozoonotic disease via research), a standardized approach for determining the disease threats to the long-term conservation of jaguars throughout their range, and recommendations for policies that may directly be counter-productive as they affect the long-term health of the free-ranging population (i.e., jaguar movements, livestock/domestic animal/jaguar interface).

Infectious and noninfectious diseases are being recognized by conservation biologists as an increasing challenge to the conservation of wildlife.7 In this context there is a growing awareness in the conservation community and willingness to collaborate with veterinarians for technical planning and implementation of conservation initiatives. Now is the time to integrate veterinary programs into large species-based conservation. It is our hope that the Jaguar Health Program can serve as a template for the integration of similar health programs into species-based conservation for the improved health of both free-ranging and captive populations.

Literature Cited

1.  Abdulla PK, James PC, Sulochana S, Jayaprakasan V, Pillai RM. Anthrax in a jaguar (Panthera onca). J Zoo An Med. 1982;13:151.

2.  Appel M, Yates RA, Foley GL, Bernstein JJ, Santinelli S, Spelman LH, et al. Canine distemper epizootic in lions, tigers, and leopards in North America. J Vet Diagn Invest. 1994;6:277–288.

3.  Barr MC, Calle PP, Roelke ME, Scott FW. Feline immunodeficiency virus infection in nondomestic felids. J Zoo Wildl Med. 1989;20:265–272.

4.  Brown EW, Yuhki N, Packer C, O’Brien SJ. Prevalence of exposure to feline immunodeficiency virus in exotic felid species. J Zoo Wildl Med. 1993;24:357–364.

5.  Cirillo F, Ayala M, Barbato G. Giardiasis and pancreatic dysfunction in a jaguar (Panthera onca): case report, evaluation, and comparative studies with other felines. In: Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Veterinarians. South Padre Island, Texas, October 21–26. 1990:69–73.

6.  Deem SL, Karesh WB. The jaguar health program manual. Jaguar Conservation Program, Wildlife Conservation Society. Bronx, New York. [Online]. Available: health manual.pdf 2001:1–45. (VIN editor: Original link not accessible 2–09–2021).

7.  Deem SL, Karesh WB, Weisman W. Putting theory into practice: wildlife health in conservation. Con Biol. 2001;15:1224–1233.

8.  Deem SL, Uhart MM, Karesh WB. La salud de la vida silvestre en reintroducciones - lo bueno, lo malo y lo evitable. In: Polanco-Ochoa R, Lopez-Arevalo H, Sanchez-Palomino P, eds. Manejo de fauna silvestre en la amazonia y latinamérica. 2002. (in press).

9.  Deem SL, Noss AJ, Cuéllar RL, Villarroel R, Linn MJ, Forrester DJ. Sarcoptic mange in free-ranging pampas foxes in the Gran Chaco, Bolivia. J Wildl Dis. 2002. (in press).

10.  Deem SL, Noss AJ, Villarroel R, Uhart MM, Karesh WB. Serologic survey for selected infectious disease agents in free-ranging grey brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira) and domestic cattle (Bos taurus) in the Gran Chaco, Bolivia. J Wildl Dis. 2002. (submitted).

11.  Fiorello C, Deem SL, Noss AJ. Disease ecology of wild and domestic carnivores in the Bolivian Chaco: preliminary results. In: Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Veterinarians. Milwaukee, WI. 2002. (in press).

12.  Fransen DR. Feline infectious peritonitis in an infant jaguar. In: Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Veterinarians. Houston, TX, 1972 and Columbus, OH, 1973:261–264.

13.  Gascoyne SC, Laurenson MK, Lelo S, Borner M. Rabies in African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) in the Serengeti region, Tanzania. J Wildl Dis. 1993;29:396–402.

14.  Hoogesteijn R, Mondolfi E. The Jaguar. Caracas: Armitano Publishers; 1998:186.

15.  Patton S, Rabinowitz A, Randolph S, Strawbridge S. A coprological survey of parasites of wild neotropical felidae. J Parasitol. 1986;72:517–520.

16.  Roelke-Parker ME, Munson L, Packer C, Kock R, Cleaveland S, Carpenter M, et al. A canine distemper virus epidemic in Serengeti lions (Panthera leo). Nature. 1996;379:441–445.

17.  Sanderson EW, Redford KH, Chetkiewicz C-LB, Medellin RA, Rabinowitz AR, Robinson JG, et al. Planning to save a species: the jaguar as a model. Con Biol. 2002;16:58–72.

18.  Save the Jaguar Website [Online]: available: (VIN editor: Original link not accessible 2–09–2021).


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

Sharon L. Deem, DVM, PhD, DACZM
Field Veterinary Program
Wildlife Conservation Society
Bronx, NY, USA

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