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Climate change perspectives from an animal doctor

By Angela Frimberger - posted Friday, 4 March 2016

The loss of 173 human lives in Victoria's Black Saturday fires in February 2009 was a tragedy. However, what many people don't know is that in addition, over 1,000,000 animals lost their lives in the fires according to RSPCA estimates, including nearly 12,000 helpless livestock.

Many of the surviving wild animals were badly burned during the fire or afterwards, trying to return to their still-smouldering homes. And even after the fires abated, they would struggle to survive in the devastated habitat.

So what's the connection between stories like these and climate change?


The Black Saturday fires occurred at the peak of a record-smashing heatwave that sat over south-eastern Australia in early 2009 generating the conditions that made the fires so devastating. Climate change didn't directly cause the fires, but it set the stage for them to be so catastrophic when they broke out.

In Tasmania we've just witnessed similarly extreme bushfires – which scientists have directly linked with climate change - destroying 80,000 hectares of ancient habitat in the Wilderness World Heritage Area, along with the forest animals that called it home.

More severe fires, longer fire seasons, and more frequent and extreme heatwaves and droughts are predicted with climate change. That's exactly what's happening, and our animal friends are paying the price.

There's no corner of the world - mountains, grasslands or seas - where animals are unaffected by climate change. The changes and species affected are simply too many to list.

"There are many examples of wildlife being impacted by climate change," says Wildlife veterinarian Dr David Phalen, Associate Professor of Wildlife Health and Conservation at the University of Sydney.

"Large fires have destroyed habitat for already endangered populations of wildlife. For example, we're seeing the lowest numbers in recorded history of waterbirds breeding in the Murray Darling basin due to low water flow… and koalas in Gunnedah and mid central Queensland being impacted by prolonged heat and drought, with 20% of the koala population in Gunnedah lost to heat exhaustion a few years ago."


Phalen and his graduate student Dr. Silvia Ban de Gouvea Pedrosa and colleague Dr. Karrie Rose, of The Australian Registry of Wildlife Health have recently identified an increase in coccidiosis, a potentially fatal infection in green sea turtles along Australia's east coast, and have linked this to climate change and changing rainfall patterns.

But it's not just wildlife bearing the brunt of climate change. Similarly to people, heat itself is actually a major health threat in animals - every year many pets die from heat stroke.

Livestock and pets die in bushfires and severe storms too. When people evacuate during natural disasters, many are unable to take their pets and must simply hope for the best.Imagine sitting in a cyclone shelter wondering not only if your home will be there to return to, but whether your pets will survive - and what they're going through.

More subtle threats to animal health and welfare overlap with threats to human health.The World Health Organization predicts an increase in infectious diseases as a likely major consequence of climate change. Many of these are zoonoses – infections shared between people and domestic and wild animals.

At the recent Paris climate conference Australia committed to working toward keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. We know what we need to do to achieve that, and we know it's economically and technologically feasible.

Climate change has many consequences, including a threat to the animals that as a veterinarian I've sworn to protect. From my perspective, there's no problem more urgent or important.

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About the Author

Angela Frimberger is a biologist and veterinary oncologist. In 2014 she was trained as a Climate Leader by the Climate Reality Project and Australian Conservation Foundation.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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