Checking Up on Peccaries

March 24, 2011

WCS veterinarians working in Brazil evaluate whether forest fragmentation and other land-use changes make wildlife, as well as livestock, more susceptible to infectious diseases.

As livestock, wildlife, and people come into closer and closer contact, infectious zoonotic diseases are increasingly spreading between them. One recent transmission affects white-lipped peccaries, pig-like creatures that live in Brazil’s Pantanal and elsewhere in Central and South America.

Together with colleagues from the State Institute of Animal Health (IAGRO) in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, veterinarians from WCS have conducted one of the first health assessments of white-lipped peccaries in the Pantanal. The research—conducted between 2003 and 2005 in a region undergoing increasing land-use change and habitat fragmentation—has shed light on the prevalence of Leptospirosis in these animals. Leptospirosis is a bacteria that affects a wide range of animals as well as humans. The study appears in a recent issue of Tropical Animal Health and Production.

Transmission of Leptospirosis and other diseases from wild to domestic animals can threaten the integrity of food safety and human health. Conversely, the movement of pathogens from domestic animals to wildlife such as peccaries may also impact the health of the ecosystem that species shapes. In cattle, the disease can lead to miscarriages, weight loss, a decline in milk output, and even death. Humans can also contract the disease through water contaminated by the urine of infected animals.

Researchers found that 55 white-lipped peccaries (70 percent of the animals in the study) tested positive for Leptospirosis. Among older animals, 80 to 100 percent tested positive, and additional analyses showed that they were exposed to a greater variety (called serovars) of Leptospirosis infections.

“The detection of Leptospirosis antibodies in white-lipped peccaries points to the need for further studies on how diseases move between livestock and wildlife, which creates risk for local economics as well as ecological health,” said Dr. Marcela Uhart, WCS veterinarian and Associate Director for Latin America-Global Health Program.

The ongoing white-lipped peccary project is now one of several health projects supported by a $1.5 million gift from Cargill, an international producer and marketer of food and agricultural, financial, and industrial products and services.

“We partnered with WCS because we believe the health of wildlife and livestock are interconnected,” said Mike Robach, Cargill vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs. “Food safety and security are top priorities at Cargill, and findings WCS is generating from research such as this help to develop safer and more secure food systems.”

In addition to the health project, WCS is also working in the region to boost public awareness of peccaries. As part of this effort, and in partnership with Cargill, a local grassroots NGO called “Quinta do Sol,” and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, WCS is sponsoring a local women’s soccer team in the village of Taboco. The project members provide peccary-themed team uniforms to the players and attend games, where they teach the local residents and schoolchildren about the role peccaries play in shaping forest environments. The effort has helped to deter hunting of the peccaries and seems to be paying off in other ways, too.

“As an encouraging sign of the success of the outreach program, we have received several reports from community members of peccary sightings in forest fragments,” said WCS conservation biologist, Alexine Keuroghlian. “By educating young community members, like the soccer players, we’re hoping that kids will influence their parents and grandparents, and pass on a conservation ethic that will help maintain wildlife populations in the region.”

Cargill has contributed to a number of WCS’s health initiatives in Latin America and Asia over the past three years. In Brazil, these projects include research focused on detecting diseases such as Newcastle and avian influenza in wild birds near commercial poultry farms, a study assessing zoonotic disease in indigenous communities, and an evaluation of wildlife reservoirs of tick-borne diseases.

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