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Linking in-situ and ex-situ conservation

Dr. Sharon L. Deem

The Isoseño-GuranÍ children are often curious about our work in the Chaco.  While processing samples, we are able to teach about the importance of animal and human health.   


      Dr. Sharon Deem is currently the veterinary epidemiologist/Galapagos for the WildCare Institute, Saint Louis Zoo.  Prior to joining the Saint Louis Zoo, Sharon worked in private practice and for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (SNZP).    Below, Dr. Deem describes, in her own words, influences that have directed her to a career in wildlife conservation medicine and wildlife health and conservation projects she has worked on in recent years.   

Why conservation medicine? 

      From my first visit to the Smithsonian National Zoo at 3 weeks old, until today, my career path may best be described as a conservation medicine practitioner.   While growing up in the Washington DC area, I spent many summers on my family’s Arabian horse and Texas Longhorn ranch in Washington State.  The contrast between these two “Washingtons” gave me an appreciation of health concerns at the livestock - wildlife interface, as well as an understanding for the role of politics in animal, human and ecosystem health.  During both my veterinary school (at the VMRCVM) summer holidays I studied livestock related programs in Africa.  The first year was in Kenya gaining exposure to the use of wildlife species for commercial gain.  In the second summer, with funding from USAID, I studied livestock health and the role of women in livestock production in Zimbabwe.  Both these experiences furthered my interest in exploring health at the domestic – wild animal interface, and just as importantly how the health of wildlife and domestic animals influences human health.  This interest was again strengthened while at the University of Florida, first as a PhD student conducting research on tick-borne diseases, returning to both Kenya and Zimbabwe, followed by a residency in zoo and wildlife medicine.  During this time my career moved closer to conservation and farther from international development (although the two are inter-connected).  As the threat of extinction for the wild species which fascinated me became increasingly evident, I knew that my veterinary skills should be applied to the growing field of conservation biology and conservation medicine.   The following provide short summaries of projects I have been fortunate to work on over the years with WCS, SNZP, and more recently with the Saint Louis Zoo; each providing an example of conservation medicine in action.  

Sharon assesses the health of a captive blue-fronted parrot (Amazona aestiva) in a village in the Gran Chaco, Bolivia.


Conservation Medicine Initiatives: Two Examples  

  1. Conservation biologists and veterinarians working to benefit animals, people and the environment: a partnership in the Gran Chaco, Bolivia

   Originally, South America’s Chaco dry forest extended over 1 million km of eastern Bolivia, northern Argentina, and Paraguay. However, today it suffers extremely high rates of conversion to industrial agriculture, particularly soy, and cattle ranching. The principal block of natural Chaco forest remaining today is the 3.4 million ha Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park in Bolivia. This habitat type shelters a conspicuously endangered mammal fauna, including the Chacoan peccary, tapir, Chacoan guanaco, jaguar, maned wolf, salt-desert cavy and five armadillo species. Additionally, the avian fauna found in the Chaco dry forest numbers nearly 500 species and includes the blue-fronted amazon parrot—subject to commercial exploitation—the rhea, the black-legged seriama, and the black-chested buzzard eagle.   

   In 1997, with assistance from the WCS, the indigenous Isoseños initiated a community wildlife management program focused on ensuring the sustainable utilization of game species. The program included hunter self-monitoring in order to evaluate off-takes and collect biologic data on hunted animals, as well as to encourage hunters to actively participate in wildlife management activities. Additional research focused on population censuses and radio-telemetry studies of home ranges, activity patterns, and habitat use. At the same time, research on the health status of these game species was implemented to evaluate potential health risks to human hunters and consumers, and to determine the impact of diseases on wildlife conservation. Through the partnering of biologists (led by Dr. Andy Noss) and veterinarians we ensured improved ecological studies via utilizing the technical skills of veterinarians for the application of telemetry devices in a number of species (e.g., tortoises, tegus, and armadillos) as well as state of the art anesthetic protocols in these and other species (e.g., tapir, peccary, canid and felid species) for telemetry application. Additionally, we analyzed health parameters of brocket deer, wild-caught and pet parrots, wild (foxes, felid species) and domestic (dogs, cats) carnivores (e.g., PhD studies of Dr. Christine Fiorello), and  armadillos. During these studies, we became increasingly aware of the interconnections among the health of the local people, wild animals and domestic animals with whom the people lived.  Many of our studies focused on diseases of concern for humans (e.g, trypanosomiasis, leptospirosis) and endangered wildlife species (e.g., canine distemper virus, sarcoptic mange, epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus). In conjunction with our studies, we distributed pamphlets on proper husbandry and health care for captive animals (e.g., domestic dogs and cats and parrots) to improve the health of humans, domestic animals and wildlife.   

Biomaterials are collected from a South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris) at the time of telemetry placement. 


   Within our conservation medicine partnership, we accomplished a number of tangible benefits for the people and animals of the Chaco and for the science of conservation biology and medicine.  These accomplishments include (1) the  local participation of the community with hunters who collect game animals, women who handle and prepare game animals and tend parrots and small livestock (goats, chickens), and men who tend cattle, all of whom played an active role in data collection; (2) education of the local field biologists and residents (who are ultimately responsible for the health of the region) about zoonotic pathogens and measures to minimize risk associated with these pathogens; (3) training of para-biologists and “para-veterinarians” who developed skills such as collecting biomaterials, managing domestic animals and wildlife health, and developing and implementing regulations within the communities of the Chaco as well as disseminating information; (4) cross training among biologists and veterinarians; and (5) bridging wildlife and domestic animal health issues and their implications for human health within the broader context  of biodiversity conservation within the Chaco ecosystem. 

  1. Marine Ecosystem Health in Gabon, Central Africa

   During 2005 to 2007, while living in Gabon, Central Africa, the anthropogenic threats to the marine environment and marine species of the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) region directed my studies.  Before moving to Gabon (with funding from the Smithsonian National Zoo), the plan was to focus on an elephant health and conservation program and zoonotic pathogens related to the bush meat trade.   However, once I arrived in country and saw the critical need for addressing the health concerns in the marine realm, the focus shifted and led to work on a marine ecosystem health program.     

   Around the globe, coastal ecosystems are stressed due to the 4 billion people living in coastal areas.  These human coastal populations are increasing at twice the rate of inland ones. For millennia, people have used oceans as sinks for waste, with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a monument to this use, and have harvested seafood with little or no regulation. Now, it is evident that polluting and exploiting the oceans is affecting human health, the health of marine wildlife, and the health of our planet—most of which is covered by oceans.    

In our marine ecosystem health project in Gabon we worked closely with the NGO Aventures Sans Frontières. 


   In Gabon the threats to the marine environment include those associated with rapid development, including the recent use of deep water oil extraction off the coast, logging practices resulting in lost logs littering sea turtle nesting beaches, commercial trawling of fishing fleets from countries throughout the world, marine debris, vehicular traffic and light pollution.  These threats, in conjunction with the threats from many people living at a subsistence level, using turtle eggs and meat, fish and other marine species as the primary protein source for survival, have resulted in a “double whammy” of impacts on the marine health at an intersection of the developed and developing worlds.  

   The marine ecosystem health program was divided into three projects : 1) nesting female and hatchling leatherback turtle health studies, 2) determination of causes of sea turtle mortality, and 3) development of a marine mammal stranding network.   Although the program was fraught with real life challenges (e.g., lack of political will and solid funding, logistics over a large area in Central Africa),there were significant accomplishments from this program.       

   Gabon has recently been confirmed as the most important leatherback turtle nesting site in the world, so this endangered sea turtle served as our flagship for the program.  The growing threats from development, especially light pollution, were central to many of our studies.  During my two years in Gabon, a French veterinary student (for her thesis) and then veterinarian (for her masters), Dr. Stephanie Bourgeois and I worked on sea turtle health and conservation efforts in Pongara National Park.  Through our work, we published articles, had a featured story on leatherback health in the 2006 Gabon phone book (really!), were part of a documentary on turtle conservation in Africa, and made a turtle health and conservation commercial that aired on the Gabonese TV channel for months.  Our work was also the catalyst for getting the local hotels and houses near the Pongara National Park nesting beach to utilize turtle friendly lighting.  And, although I moved away from Gabon in 2007, many biologists and veterinarians continue working in the region on sea turtle conservation under a program led by Dr. Angela Formia, with funding from the USFWS marine turtle fund.  Within the conservation efforts, health concerns are incorporated due in large part to our initiation of the marine ecosystem health program, in which animal and ecosystem health are placed in the context of conserving marine species.   

Emerging from their nest in the Pongara National Park, leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) hatchlings begin their lives above sand.



A female leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) nesting on the beach in Pongara National Park, Gabon.


Current position  

   In August 2007 I joined the Center for Avian Health in Galapagos as a veterinary epidemiologist based in Galapagos.  This Center is a consortium of the WildCare Institute, Saint Louis Zoo, University of Missouri – Saint Louis, Galapagos National Park, and Charles Darwin Foundation led by co-directors Drs. Patty Parker and Eric Miller.  The Center was developed in 2001 to address the threats posed by novel pathogens to the endemic birds of the Galapagos Islands.  Specifically, the objectives, using a combination of field ecology and veterinary studies, have been to understand: (1) the current health status of Galapagos birds; (2) the transmission dynamics of diseases currently present in the archipelago; and (3) future threats to wildlife health and methods to ameliorate these threats. 

   During the first two years in Galapagos, I have been involved in 6 main areas of the Center’s avian health research.  These include studies to understand 1) the epidemiology of avian pox virus; 2) the cause of a population decline in the Galapagos hawk; 3) the epidemiology of the recently identified Plasmodium sp. in Galapagos penguins; 4) health related challenges within the re-introduction plan for the Floreana mockingbird; and 5) the epidemiology of Toxoplamsa gondii. In additional to research, I have provided clinical health care within the newly developing captive breeding program for Darwin’s finches and mockingbirds.   True to the mission of the Center for Avian Health in Galapagos, each of these studies has the underlying mission to help with management efforts of the Galapagos National Park and the long-term conservation of the endemic avifauna of Galapagos.   

A juvenile Galapagos mockingbird (Mimus parvulus) with lesions caused by infections with avian poxvirus.



   The many projects on which I have been fortunate to work have the common theme towards ensuring healthy animals, environments and people.  Many of these projects are located in the most bio-diverse regions of the world.  Key to their success has been the contributions that I, and other veterinarians, have been able to make using our veterinary training and skills.  However, as importantly has been the partnering of veterinarians with other conservationists (e.g., ecologists, biologists, economists, sociologists, education specialists, etc) and the outreach efforts incorporated, in the form of articles, documentaries, and presentations.  It is only by sharing our work that we can energize people, in the smallest villages to the largest cities, to become engaged in the conservation and health of their environments.  

   Whether one has a concern for the health of wildlife due to their role as the “canaries in the coal mine,” providing valuable information about the health of an entire ecosystem, or one is concerned with the long-term conservation of an endangered species, wildlife health studies and health “care”  are imperative if we are to ensure healthy ecosystems—necessary for sustaining all life forms on Earth.   Conservation medicine practitioners are vital for the success of these conservation efforts. 



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