Australia burns: animal welfare, human wellbeing and the environment: the role of the veterinarian

In this webinar, Tanya Stephens discusses the One Welfare dimensions of the Australian bush fires and the importance of vets in the emergency response.

The recent bushfires in Australia are unprecedented. The fires have spread from Southern Queensland, through NSW, into Gippsland, in the Adelaide Hills, near Perth and on the east Coast of Tasmania.

The fires have been particularly severe because of absolute lack of moisture in the landscape as a result of prolonged drought, combined with two large- scale climate phenomena. There is no doubt that climate change which results in increasing temperatures has contributed to the dry conditions.

Australia had its highest recorded temperatures in history in 2019. Australia is already one of the driest countries on earth with most of its inhabitants clinging to the edges. It also has unique flora and fauna and a poor record for animal extinctions. The fires have had a devastating effect on livestock and native animals, particularly the koala with at least 2,000 killed in the East. An estimated 1.3 billion mammals, birds and reptiles have died in the fires.

Those that have survived are threatened by invasive pests such as cats and foxes which quickly move into burnt out areas. The fires have caused a significant health risk with pollution in affected areas regularly reaching hazardous levels and the fires are responsible for enormous greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately the fires were preceded by many years of land clearing in NSW and Queensland. Land clearing kills millions of native animals and disrupts habitats making it difficult for animals such as the koala to survive. The outlook is grim. We ask ourselves if we will ever recover and what the future holds for our unique wildlife.

Veterinarians are of course essential in treating burnt and injured animals and euthanasing those that can’t be saved. They have an essential role in providing support to wildlife carers who are known to be under stress even in non bushfire times as a result of caring for the vast numbers of wildlife that come into care in Australia each year. Veterinarians are best placed to assess animal health and welfare and make sensible decisions on the options for rehabilitation of burnt and injured wildlife keeping in mind that the fate of rehabilitated and released native animals is largely unknown. In the long term there should be adequate Government employment of veterinarians in wildlife and environmental roles for ongoing advice and oversight. And adequate employment of vets in areas such as Local Land Services to advise the livestock sector affected by fires and play a role in planning strategies to limit the effects of extreme weather events which are exacerbated by climate change.

Veterinarians play an essential role in lobbying politicians to take heed of climate scientists and plan ahead. It’s long been known that climate change will affect those areas currently suited to livestock farming in Australia. Governments also need to look at water allocation and the effects of drought. Whilst there has been mass deaths of fish in dried up rivers in NSW, 3.7 million red kangaroos have been estimated to have died during the current drought.

Veterinarians need to lobby for better use of water. More effort should be made to consider the use of native plants and animals such as kangaroos better suited to the Australian environment than European livestock.

Australia Burns Webinar

By Tanya Stephens on behalf of Vet Sustain in partnership with The Webinar Vet, a platform that was created with the intention of making veterinary education easier, more accessible and affordable.