Wildlife Health in Latin America: Conservation Goals
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2000
Marcela M. Uhart1, Med Vet; Sharon L. Deem2, DVM, PhD, DACZM; Robert A. Cook3, VMD; William B. Karesh2, DVM

1Field Veterinary Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, Tandil, Pcia. de Buenos Aires, Argentina; 2Field Veterinary Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY, USA; 3Wildlife Health Sciences, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY, USA


In this paper, we present the Wildlife Conservation Society, Field Veterinary Program’s projects in Latin America, emphasizing the conservation goals associated with these projects.


The International Programs of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have expanded throughout Latin America during the past 30 years. Long-term projects in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela are now well established. The WCS Field Veterinary Program (FVP) has developed a role in these conservation efforts, collaborating with on-going projects and initiating new research and training with local counterparts. The FVP involvement has been oriented towards providing field wildlife health services, assisting biologists with immobilizations and proper animal handling procedures, conducting health assessments of selected wildlife populations, instructing local professionals, and providing resource guides for in-country policy development.

Wildlife Health Monitoring

Human population increases, environmental degradation, and habitat fragmentation have put increasing pressures on wildlife worldwide. These stressors can compromise isolated free-ranging populations and lead to the emergence of devastating wildlife diseases. Vigilance via long-term monitoring of health parameters of wild populations aids in the documentation of changes in the prevalence of exposure to infectious and toxic agents. These data pooled with population dynamics and general ecology information provide an essential baseline of information which allows for the interpretation of the present status of wildlife populations and the prediction of future trends. Additionally, these data allow us a framework for devising solutions to these wildlife disease problems. The development of many areas of Latin America for agriculture, livestock production, mining, forestry, industry and tourism provides economic benefits for human populations in these underdeveloped countries. However, these same activities represent major environmental threats to the ecosystems in this region. In addition to providing information on the health status of wildlife species, monitoring specific sentinel wild animal populations allows for the indirect evaluation of the health of the ecosystems in which they live.10 Field Veterinary Program projects in Latin America with long-term health monitoring include studies on sea birds, raptors, marine mammals, and wild ungulates.

Sea Birds

Species under study include Guanay cormorants (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii), imperial cormorants (P. atriceps), rock cormorants (P. magellanicus), giant petrels (Macronectes giganteus), Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti), and Magellanic penguins (S. magellanicus). These are all colonial species and therefore more susceptible to catastrophic environmental and disease events.11


Raptors are highly susceptible to bio-accumulation and bio-magnification of environmental pesticides due to their position at the top of the food chain.8 Documentation of a massive die-off of Swainson’s hawks (Buteo swainsoni) in Argentina, due to acute intoxication, best exemplifies the role that pesticides can and do still play in many regions of Latin America.4,14 Because Swainson’s hawks migrate between North and South America, they make excellent sentinels of transcontinental environmental threats. In 1999, we began a 2-year monitoring program of five raptor species: burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia), roadside hawks (Buteo magnirostris), crested caracara (Polyborus plancus), chimango caracara (Milvago chimango) and Swainson’s hawks (Buteo swainsoni) in an agricultural region of Argentina. In addition to gathering baseline health parameter data for these species in Argentina, exposure to a panel of environmental pesticides is being assessed.

Marine Mammals

Marine mammals in Latin America have historically faced population level threats from direct (hunting) and indirect (fisheries, El Niño) actions. However, until recently, little was known about the threats of environmental toxins and infectious agents (e.g., morbilliviruses) to the long-term conservation of these species in Latin America.6,13 Current studies we are conducting with elephant seals (Mirounga leonina), southern sea lions (Otaria byronia) and South American fur seals (Arctocephalus australis) are allowing us to collect bio-materials from a large number of animals. These data will be used to better assess the role that diseases may play in population trends.

Wild Ungulate and Domestic Livestock

The overlap in habitat utilization by native ungulates and domestic livestock has generated many debates about the role of disease transmission between wild and domestic ungulate populations.1,9 However, few studies have been directed to the evaluation of this issue. Specifically, the effects of livestock practices on wild ungulate health have probably been consistently underestimated. The FVP has completed or is presently involved in the study of four wild ungulate-domestic livestock studies.7,12 These studies are pampas deer (Ozotocerus bezoarticus celler) with cattle, guanaco (Lama guanicoe) with sheep, huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus) with exotic deer species and domestic cattle, and brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira) with domestic cattle. Establishing disease prevalence and transmission risks between these species will provide necessary objective data for scientific-based management planning.

Sea Turtles

Disease, including effects of environmental toxins and fibropapillomatosis, may be a possible limiting factor in the long-term conservation of sea turtles.3,5 Although the Caribbean coastal area of Nicaragua is believed to be the most important foraging ground for green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the world, little is known of the health status of this species in these waters. Beginning in 1999, the FVP initiated a long-term health monitoring program, in conjunction with an on-going ecology study of green turtles in this region. Identifying health factors influencing this population is critical for the implementation of adequate management plans.

Capture and Immobilization

In collaboration with local researchers in Latin American countries, the FVP has provided hands-on assistance in the capture, restraint and handling of wild animals. Some species, such as marine mammals, have traditionally experienced problems during field immobilizations. The FVP has been instrumental in minimizing mortalities associated with these procedures. In addition, many of the species with which we work are highly endangered (e.g., pampas deer). Immobilizations of these animals require careful balancing of political and public pressures with the benefits and risks associated with each anesthetic event.

Policy Development, Recommendations, and Review

An increasing number of conservation research teams in Latin America are seeking input from the FVP regarding many aspects of wildlife health and management. The FVP provides input on proper capture techniques and animal welfare concerns, sample collection protocols, and assistance in the organization of rehabilitation centers and reintroduction programs.

Evaluation of Wildlife Sustainable Use Systems

Ranching of caiman (Caiman yacare, C. latirostris) is a sustainable use system recommended by the IUCN for these and other crocodilian species.2 The main objective is to protect the species and the environment where it lives, establishing an economic value for a natural resource. Enforcing regulations on adult caiman harvest for the last 10 years has allowed wild populations in Argentina to recuperate from extensive over-exploitation in the past. With quotas on the harvest of wild caiman nests and captive incubation and raising of youngsters, this system provides enough young to both satisfy market demands and the restocking of wild populations. To minimize disease risks associated with this “ranching system,” strict sanitary controls on the captive raised animals together with baseline wild population health information is necessary. The FVP is collaborating with Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina on their caiman population health study.

Collaboration with Universities and NGO’s in Latin America

Interdisciplinary activities and collaborative efforts are currently considered essential for the achievement of major conservation goals. During the past 10 years the FVP has consistently involved local partner organizations and universities in all stages of its programs. Restricted funding availability, limited access to costly equipment and the shortage of trained professionals in much of Latin America has increased the need for this cooperative approach. An example of the FVP’s collaboration is with the Fundacion Patagonia Natural (Argentina) in the development and implementation of a Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Plan, funded by the United Nations Development Program. This plan will ensure sustainable use of the region’s resources, regulate industries and review policies to protect this area.

Rehabilitation and Reintroduction Issues

The wildlife department of Bolivia has recently proposed a country-wide confiscation of illegally held wildlife. The implications of such a program for this country are many and profound. The need to humanely handle confiscated animals and to develop policies on how best to handle these animals (i.e., keep in educational centers, repatriate, euthanatize) are issues that must be addressed. The FVP is providing input for policy makers based on objective data on the disease risks associated with animal movements.

Advice and Protocol Review for Field Biologists and Wildlife Veterinarians

The FVP routinely provides advice and reviews procedures involving capture methods, animal handling and sampling, bio-telemetry applications and laboratory techniques. Through an extensive network of consultants we facilitate access to information requested by field scientists and government agencies with particular needs.


Expanding the role of conservation medicine by training biologists, field assistants and in-country veterinarians is one of the keys to effective conservation. Most professionals in Latin America have limited access to foreign educational centers and updated scientific information. Working directly with WCS field researchers, local NGO’s and universities, the FVP is enhancing the capacities of local partners through specifically designed training programs. The WCS field veterinarians have conducted numerous training programs throughout Latin America with more planned for the future.

Cooperative Agreements with Local Universities

The FVP has forged formal long-term partnerships with local universities and veterinary schools in Argentina and will shortly expand to Bolivia, Peru and other Latin American countries. Our aim is to link traditional, agricultural-based veterinary medicine with conservation biology and wildlife medicine.

Field Training Courses

In many situations, necropsies are the sole means to acquire data on the health status of free-ranging wildlife populations. It is for this reason that the FVP veterinarians provide training courses for local veterinarians, veterinary students, biologists, parabiologists, and park guards on necropsy and sample collection techniques. The goal is to ensure that there is “no waste in death.”

One project in which field staff instruction has played a key role includes the Kaa-Iya National Park in the Bolivian Chaco. In this park, trained indigenous hunters are systematically collecting biomedical samples from hunted animals for population health and reproduction studies. A second project on huemul ecology in the Patagonian Andes has included the training of field staff for the collection of all available huemul samples. The study of this little known and elusive deer will be enhanced by the efforts of these specially trained scientists.

Development of training materials and field guides is another important contribution the FVP has made to local conservation efforts. Examples of training manuals include protocols and standardized procedures for wildlife mortality investigation, field necropsy and sample collection procedures, and a jaguar health program handbook.

Integrated-Landscape Approach

During 1999, WCS received funding for a project to assess the current status of jaguars throughout the Americas. The FVP is playing a central role in aspects related to safe jaguar capture and immobilizations, health evaluations, wildlife-domestic animal interactions, human-wildlife conflicts, training and education of local settlers. This 5-year jaguar conservation program is an example of how veterinary medicine should be an integral part of conservation efforts.


The FVP has taken significant steps over the past few years in the development of veterinary activities in conjunction with other conservation work in Latin America. In a relatively short period of time, the FVP has become involved in the design and implementation of major conservation projects. Working as an interdisciplinary team and focusing on local efforts has resulted in the development of a program that meets the concerns of local people, as well as the global community. Additionally, this approach has enhanced the role that veterinarians should play in active conservation in this biologically rich region of the world. The integration of local expertise in the planning and implementation process has reinforced the long-term conservation efforts in this region. The success of our projects in Latin America will ultimately be realized through our ability to influence decision and policy makers using objective scientific data.


The authors thank Wendy Weisman, Lisa Starr, Paul Calle, Mark Stetter, Nicole Gottdenker, Tracey McNamara, Mike Linn, Claudio Campagna, Graham Harris, Alejandro Vila, Mario Beade, Esteban Frere, Patricia Gandini, Pablo Yorio, Flavio Quintana, Patricia Majluf, Gabriella Battistini, Carlos Zavalaga, Rosana Paredes, Cynthia Lagueux, Carolina Marull, Mirtha Lewis, Alfredo Balcarce, Andy Noss and “the Kaa-Iya team,” USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service, governments of Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and the provincial or departmental governments of Chubut, Santa Cruz, Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, Santa Cruz in Bolivia, and Ica in Peru.

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Speaker Information
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Marcela M. Uhart, Med Vet
Wildlife Conservation Society
Field Veterinary Program
Tandil, Pcia. de Buenos Aires, Argentina

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