Wildlife conservation and preserving biodiversity: impactful opportunities for veterinarians?

Jacey R. Cerda Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO

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 JD, MPH
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Tracy L. Webb Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO

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 DVM, PhD

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Abstract

The world is losing wildlife species at an unprecedented rate. Habitat destruction, overexploitation, and pollution are the leading causes of biodiversity decline. As a threat multiplier, climate change exacerbates these processes as demonstrated by the death of several billion wild animals in the last few years from wildfires, floods, heatwaves, and other natural disasters. In the face of these challenges, veterinarians have unique and important skillsets to contribute to wildlife conservation and the preservation of biodiversity at many levels. Veterinarians can organize and train to mobilize wildlife extraction, rescue, and rehabilitation units during natural disasters as well as build relationships with rehabilitators to provide their services for general wildlife rehabilitation needs. They can work in transdisciplinary teams to provide veterinary expertise for ecosystem health and rewilding projects. They can become sustainability champions by providing pollinator and wildlife friendly habitats at their clinics and reducing clinic waste and energy consumption, and they can engage in science communication and advocacy. When provided with the necessary information, resources, and action items, veterinarians can increase their positive impact and personal well-being through purposeful, value-driven, community-building efforts to support wildlife conservation and biodiversity.

Abstract

The world is losing wildlife species at an unprecedented rate. Habitat destruction, overexploitation, and pollution are the leading causes of biodiversity decline. As a threat multiplier, climate change exacerbates these processes as demonstrated by the death of several billion wild animals in the last few years from wildfires, floods, heatwaves, and other natural disasters. In the face of these challenges, veterinarians have unique and important skillsets to contribute to wildlife conservation and the preservation of biodiversity at many levels. Veterinarians can organize and train to mobilize wildlife extraction, rescue, and rehabilitation units during natural disasters as well as build relationships with rehabilitators to provide their services for general wildlife rehabilitation needs. They can work in transdisciplinary teams to provide veterinary expertise for ecosystem health and rewilding projects. They can become sustainability champions by providing pollinator and wildlife friendly habitats at their clinics and reducing clinic waste and energy consumption, and they can engage in science communication and advocacy. When provided with the necessary information, resources, and action items, veterinarians can increase their positive impact and personal well-being through purposeful, value-driven, community-building efforts to support wildlife conservation and biodiversity.

Introduction

In just 48 years, between 1970 and 2018, the world lost an estimated 69% of its total mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.1 One million additional species face extinction in the coming decades if humanity’s impact on Earth continues as it has since the start of the Industrial Revolution, especially with expected continued human population growth.2 Degradation and destruction of ecosystems and habitats, along with direct overexploitation of species, top the list as primary drivers of global biodiversity decline.2 Ecosystem degradation is associated with the loss of approximately 83% of wild mammal biomass.3 Climate change further exacerbates these declines, particularly through increasing extreme weather events including hurricanes, flooding, droughts, and fires.2 As a result, wildlife species not only face the continued exploitation, degradation, and destruction of their habitat from human activities, but they also face additional, accelerated, and potentially extinction-level threats induced by climate change.

In most countries, veterinarians swear to uphold a professional oath. The spirit of those oaths is embodied in the World Veterinary Association’s model oath4:

“I as a member of the Global Veterinary Profession, do solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge, skill and training… to prevent, diagnose, treat and manage pain and disease in all animal species to the best of my ability in keeping with the principles of veterinary ethics and relevant law… To advocate for the sustainable use of terrestrial, aerial, and aquatic animals in their diverse ecosystems through stewardship to reduce environmental impacts…”

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE), and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association recently committed their organizations and members to the following:

“Protecting and advancing the health and welfare of all animals… Developing and implementing guidelines that govern the international trade of animals and animal products in order to not only protect animal health and welfare, but also human and ecosystem health… Conducting research to advance animal health and welfare, and human, public, and ecosystem health… [and] Working with captive and free-ranging wildlife to protect biodiversity and advance species conservation efforts…”5

Thus, veterinarians are obliged, and often value-driven, to play whatever role they can in protecting biodiversity and enhancing wildlife conservation.

Drivers of Biodiversity Decline and Extinction

Biodiversity is defined as “the variety of life on Earth—its genes, species, populations, and ecosystems.”6 Biodiversity is a comprehensive concept comprising all forms of diversity at all organizational levels including diversity at the genetic, biological community, and ecosystem and landscape levels.6 Veterinarians have numerous roles to play in helping to conserve biodiversity across the broad spectrum of its reach and importance.

Habitat loss

Top threats to biodiversity decline include habitat loss and fragmentation, overexploitation, and pollution.7 Habitat loss, resulting from destruction, degradation, conversion, and fragmentation of the landscape is the single greatest driver of wildlife population decline around the world.1,7,8 Habitat loss results from independently destructive anthropogenic activities, including land conversion, energy development, general infrastructure (roads, powerlines), outdoor recreation, invasive species, pollution, and disruption of natural regimes (eg, fire suppression).8 These independently destructive activities then layer upon each other resulting in deleterious cumulative impacts to overall landscape connectivity and resource availability.9

Landscape connectivity refers to how the landscape facilitates or impedes movement among resource patches and genetically diverse populations.9 It has 2 distinct but equally important components: physical (spatial arrangement of resources in the landscape) and behavioral (response and interaction of individuals, populations, species, or ecological processes).9 When only patches of habitat are available without functional connectivity, movement of individuals between populations is impaired, which reduces genetic diversity and decreases that species’ ability to successfully adapt to changing ecosystems and climate change.9

Humans have altered an estimated 75% of Earth’s ice free ecosystems, and over 85% of wetlands are gone.2 Agricultural uses dominate over one-third of the Earth’s surface, and urban areas have doubled in size in the last 30 years.2 Habitat loss due to agricultural conversion to feed the growing human population is the leading threat to terrestrial bird and mammal populations.10 These data suggest that finding new ways to produce food and maintain livelihoods such that ecosystems are maintained and restored will play an important role in biodiversity conservation.

Overexploitation

Overexploitation of wildlife species is another significant driver of biodiversity decline.7,10 Exploitation encompasses anything that results in the direct take of one or more wildlife individuals, including hunting, fishing, poaching, or live capture for the wildlife trade. Hunting for body parts or direct human consumption continues to jeopardize the populations of 40% to 50% of threatened bird and mammal species.10 Seventy-five percent of marine fish stocks are currently fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.2

At the international level, the legal and illegal trade in wildlife species has dramatic consequences on wildlife populations. The economic value of the legal trade in wildlife has increased over 2,000% since the 1980s, while the total economic value of both the legal and illegal trade is estimated at over $20 billion USD a year.11,12 An estimated 100 million plants and animals are trafficked each year, with current trade including species spanning 75% of terrestrial vertebrate families.12 The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) is a multilateral trade agreement to prevent wildlife decline.13 Recent analysis indicates that it is effective in preventing population declines, but only in member countries that have strong enforcement mechanisms.13 Thus, local and national drivers of wildlife overexploitation continue to be a substantial threat faced by wildlife species.1013

Global use of wildlife species for meat may be the least documented, but most far reaching, use of wildlife in the world.14 Unsustainable use of wildlife occurs due to lack of intersectoral collaboration (eg, local communities, government and development agencies, private sector, and the conservation community) for the sustainable use of wild meat and improvement of livelihood and food security, lack of incentives for resource conservation (no ownership or participation in planning), and poor management of wild meat resources (eg, poor knowledge, inadequate capacity, inadequate policy and legislation, and increasing demand).14 Identified solutions to support the sustainable use of wild meat resources should therefore focus on improved engagement and capacity building of all actors and sectors and development of improved institutional management frameworks.14 Without the development of sustainable economies and increased availability of alternative, high quality protein sources, informed and supported by community and government leaders, and respecting indigenous and cultural knowledge and traditions, the predicted human population growth in highly biodiverse areas is expected to further intensify the demand for bushmeat.10,14 Ultimately, lack of sustainable economies and coordinated enforcement at the local to national level undermines the effectiveness of CITES and other international biodiversity agreements and conservation efforts.

Pollution and anthropogenic disasters

Wildlife populations are also under threat from pollution and related anthropogenic actions (eg, oil and other chemical spills, agricultural toxins, plastic contamination, nutrient pollution leading to harmful algal blooms and light pollution). Environmental toxicants can cause direct and indirect as well as acute and chronic effects. For example, application of neonicotinoids can directly and acutely kill pollinators, while also inducing a decline in bird species dependent on those pollinators as a food source and risking human food security due to declining pollinator populations.15 Likewise, every year numerous oil spills around the world pose significant acute, chronic, and indirect threats to individuals, populations, and ecosystems.16 In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico leaked 750 million liters of oil, spreading over 149,000 km2 and affecting over 2,000 km of US coastline.16 The oil spill impacted species at all trophic levels as well as marine, beach, and salt marsh ecosystems, and continues to affect some species and ecosystems over a decade later.16

The most common pollutants affecting wildlife species include pesticides (herbicides, fungicides, algaecides, insecticides, avicides, and growth regulators), industrial chemicals (volatiles, semi-volatiles, solvents, surfactants, explosives, and nanomaterials), fossil and mineral fuels (oil/petroleum, natural gas, and coal), veterinary and human pharmaceuticals, food additives, metals, and fertilizers.17 More than 140,000 chemicals and pesticides have been introduced into commercial products over the last several decades,15 and global chemical manufacturing is predicted to double by 2030.18

Between the 1950s and 2019, annual plastic production increased from 1.5 million to 460 million tons, and only an estimated 9% of this plastic is currently recycled.19 The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development19 reports that the 30 million tons and 109 million tons of plastic already accumulated in the oceans and rivers, respectively, will harm these ecosystems, the wildlife species within them, and the humans dependent upon them for decades to come. Animal model studies demonstrate that microplastics can cause several health issues, including oxidative stress and toxicity, disruption of energy and metabolic pathways, immune function disruption, neurotoxicity, and neoplasia, and can serve as vectors for other toxic chemicals or pathogens.20 The long-term effects of these contaminants are still understudied. Considering that microplastics have been found in human blood, placenta, organs, and fetal tissues and every aquatic ecosystem on Earth is now considered contaminated with microplastics, these pollutants can not only affect individual health but lead to large scale effects on entire ecosystems and populations.20,21

Wildlife species face many significant anthropogenic threats. The drivers of decline and extinction are accelerating, and research is just beginning to understand how these myriad forces interact with each other to affect individuals, populations, species, and ecosystems in a cumulative manner. Climate change adds a further layer of complexity to wildlife conservation efforts.

Wildlife and Climate Change: A Threat Multiplier

How climate change will ultimately affect specific wildlife species depends on a complex suite of ecological and anthropogenic factors. At the most basic level, climate change is simply a threat multiplier, and it will primarily exacerbate the threats discussed above with the addition of stochastic and less predictable extreme weather events (Figure 1). A recent meta-analysis investigating the intersection of climate change and habitat loss over the last century found that climate change has already exacerbated the impacts of habitat loss on biodiversity in 120 disproportionately biodiverse ecoregions, containing over 50% of all known terrestrial, amphibian, bird, mammal, and reptile species.22 Future climate models predict that 283 ecoregions may become vulnerable during the 21st century.22

Figure 1
Figure 1

Climate change is a threat multiplier of the major negative impacts on biodiversity.

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 261, 7; 10.2460/javma.23.02.0094

Climate change is already shifting abiotic and biotic ecological factors of landscapes, thereby causing changes in the distribution of species across various ecosystems.23 These changes can have significant impacts on human and animal health through a variety of mechanisms including reduced food security, increased exposure to zoonotic disease, and decreased ecosystem services (eg, provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting). In terms of zoonotic disease, range shifts cause disease vectors to expand into new areas and wildlife species to interact with each other, domestic animals, and humans in novel ways.24 Pathogen hosts and vectors also respond to altered weather patterns in unique ways (eg, ticks may quest for prey earlier based on increased mean temperatures).25 The 3 mosquito genera responsible for malaria, dengue, and chikungunya are already expanding into new ecosystems due to changing climate conditions.23,24

Regardless of predicted climate scenarios, current extreme weather events (fires, droughts, floods, hurricanes/cyclones, and terrestrial/marine heatwaves) are already impacting wildlife populations and will continue to be significant contributors to wildlife loss and species extinction for the foreseeable future. In the last 5 years, extreme fire events, now termed “megafires” (>100,000 acres in size), engulfed several million acres in Australia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South America, Indonesia, Siberia, and the western US.26 In Australia from 2019 to 2020, 15,000 fires consumed approximately 19 million hectares, with some areas facing the largest fires ever recorded.27 Several million animals likely perished as the fires overtook the habitat of 107 threatened and 725 previously nonthreatened vertebrate species (eg, 378 bird, 254 reptile, 102 frog, 83 mammal, and 15 freshwater fish species).26 In the US an estimated 50% of Washington state’s pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis) died, and 30% to 70% of the state’s greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus) populations plummeted during the 2020 fires.28 The heat dome that hit British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, and Washington and Oregon in the US in June/July 2021 induced a marine heatwave that resulted in a likely 70% mortality rate for mussels and barnacles in the intertidal zone.29

Extreme weather events are predicted to increase across numerous ecosystems around the world,3 indicating the need to take these events into account when planning for and engaging in wildlife and biodiversity conservation activities. These events also provide one of the many opportunities veterinarians have to become involved in wildlife conservation.

The Veterinarian’s Role

The data on current and projected threats to wildlife species create a challenging and significant need for immediate and large-scale action, and veterinarians, individually and collectively, are in a unique position to help preserve, conserve, and regenerate biodiversity in a variety of ways (Table 1).

Table 1

Examples of (a) short-, (b) medium-, and (c) longer-term action items for veterinarians to engage in and support wildlife conservation and biodiversity. (See Supplementary Table S1 for suggested websites and links relevant to the listed actions)

A. SHORT TERM
  • Plant pollinator and wildlife friendly plants and create habitats at your home and clinic.

  • Perform a sustainability audit of your clinic, lab, or workspace and implement impactful green medicine practices.

  • Learn how to engage in policy advocacy.

  • Contact your national leaders and urge them to commit to biodiversity conservation policies.

  • Contact your local leaders and urge them to commit to biodiversity protection and implement biodiversity conservation policies.

  • Work with local government to write biodiversity conservation policies into land use codes.

  • Urge leaders at professional veterinary organizations to adopt and advocate for more policies guiding best practices for biodiversity conservation, climate change, and sustainability.

  • Get involved with your local veterinary medical associations and urge them to advocate for biodiversity conservation, climate change, and sustainability.

B. MEDIUM TERM
  • Learn how intergovernmental organizations are working on biodiversity and climate change and where you can get involved.

  • Research biodiversity-, climate change–, and sustainability-focused organizations and get involved with their committees, research, and policy advocacy.

  • Support student research projects integrating biodiversity conservation with other One Health priorities.

  • Get involved with climate change and planetary health organizations.

  • Establish collaborations with local wildlife rehabilitators.

  • Work with veterinary wildlife rescue organizations.

C. LONGER TERM
  • Participate in training opportunities with disaster training and response organizations.

  • Consider advanced training in relevant specialty and research areas through internships, residencies, PhD, and other professional degree programs.

  • Develop and share resources and training related to wildlife conservation.

Disaster response

From actively engaging in companion animal and domestic livestock rescue operations to using their public health knowledge to help prevent disease outbreaks prior to, during, and after disasters, veterinarians have become increasingly important in disaster response over the last several decades. There is also a critical need for veterinarians to engage in the rescue and treatment of wildlife species during disasters, particularly in a pre-emptive manner designed to save threatened populations. A 2021 study noted that only 43% of 61 wildlife rescue organizations reported having a veterinarian on staff.30 Given the disasters discussed above, more programs that can train and mobilize veterinarians to rescue wildlife during natural or anthropogenic disasters are needed. Fortunately, successful programs already exist and can be used as models to develop wildlife veterinary rescue teams across the globe.

During the 2019 to 2020 bushfires in Australia, Zoos Victoria was asked to lead extraction programs for wildlife species threatened by the wildfires and to help develop the Bushfire Biodiversity Response and Recovery Plan.31 Zoos Victoria developed triage units and response kits with several other non-profit, academic, and private partners that were used to rapidly triage wildlife.31 Triage teams included veterinarians, veterinary nurses, and zoo staff knowledgeable in applicable husbandry practices. Given the intensity of the fires and resulting injuries, 20% of presenting animals were immediately euthanized; however, 42% were released after emergency first aid, supportive care, and husbandry.31 This relatively high success rate was likely due to the mobilization of pre-organized multidisciplinary teams, including veterinarians, that had all necessary equipment present with them in the field.

Zoos Victoria also created threatened species extraction teams, which included ecological experts, zookeepers, veterinarians, and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, to remove important vegetative, aquatic, fungal, and terrestrial species prior to fires moving through the area.31 Although success was mixed, particularly for the terrestrial species, these activities provided data on how to better organize and prepare such extraction teams to result in improved wildlife health and welfare outcomes in disasters.31 Such extreme extractions are likely to be necessary in the future and need to be coordinated with multi-disciplinary teams that can act quickly and efficiently for maximal success.

In addition to Zoos Victoria, the Australian Veterinary Emergency Response Team (AVERT) also mobilized to help provide care to companion animals, livestock, and wildlife as needed during the 2019 to 2020 fires.32 The Australian-based charity Vets Beyond Borders established AVERT in 2015 following recognition of the increased need for veterinary care during disasters and disease outbreaks. Over 50 volunteer veterinarians and veterinary nurses provided over 400 days of care to affected animals. Recognizing that several volunteers lacked skillsets in wildlife medicine and surgery,32 Vets Beyond Borders created specific wildlife care training for veterinary volunteers. Zoos Victoria’s and AVERT’s comprehensive and proactive approach will increase capacity for rescuing and treating wildlife in disasters in the future, and other countries and organizations can use these examples for even greater impact.

Wildlife triage, supplementary feeding, and extraction prior to and during ongoing disasters are evidently necessary and can be effective when there are established strong partnerships and alliances working toward these goals. Veterinarians already have many of the skillsets necessary to engage in this work including knowledge and practice in emergency medicine and triage, understanding animals’ nutritional needs, preventing disease, and appropriately handling stressed animals. However, local or national organizations are needed to coordinate veterinarians and others to participate in this aspect of wildlife conservation and develop skillsets necessary to handle wildlife needing veterinary medical care. Veterinarians also need training programs specific to disaster response (eg, working within the Incident Command System) as well as professional support to start, organize, and lead successful disaster response teams.

Although not directed toward wildlife, in the US, the AVMA and several governmental organizations provide resources, funding, and support for veterinarians to participate in disaster preparedness and train as members of veterinary response teams (Table 1, Supplementary Table 1). Government agencies, professional organizations, and academic institutions should proactively engage in organizational and funding activities to create partnerships and coordinated efforts that encourage, train, and support veterinarians interested in this type of work and research to direct best practices in this area. A loan repayment program for those interested in working in wildlife rescue, like those established for rural veterinary medicine, could go a long way in creating and sustaining the trained, surge capacity veterinary personnel and resources necessary to protect wildlife and biodiversity prior to, during, and after disasters. Expansion of training programs and certificates, wildlife tracks in veterinary curriculums, and subspecialties in wildlife medicine and disaster response would provide structure and recognition to efforts in this area.

Wildlife rehabilitation

Veterinarians can also engage in wildlife rehabilitation activities in the general, everyday context of deleterious human-wildlife interactions. Wildlife rehabilitation is defined as “the treatment and temporary care of injured, diseased, and displaced indigenous animals, and the subsequent release of healthy animals to appropriate habitats in the wild.”33 While a veterinary license is not required to become a state- or federally-certified wildlife rehabilitator, facilities that have veterinarians on staff tend to have better overall outcomes for successfully releasing wildlife.34 This is likely due to a number of factors: veterinarians are trained to determine successful release criteria and when euthanasia is the most appropriate outcome, and facilities with veterinarians tend to have more highly trained staff as well as increased diagnostic and treatment capabilities.30

Wildlife rehabilitation capabilities are limited by a lack of funding, staff, and appropriate veterinary care. At the same time, there is a growing interest among veterinarians and veterinary students to participate in wildlife rehabilitation and conservation.35 One of the most effective ways to get involved is to build a collaborative relationship with local wildlife rehabilitators.36 Rehabilitators can provide appropriate housing and nursery care and help veterinarians understand what roles they are legally allowed to play in wildlife rehabilitation. Veterinarians can provide animal assessments, diagnostics, and treatments to improve outcomes for animals in the care of licensed rehabilitators.36 Establishment of training and funding support mechanisms for these efforts and collaborations would help overcome the barriers that limit veterinarians from participating in these activities.

Research

Many questions remain regarding how best to protect wildlife species in a dynamic environmental and developmental landscape, and fundamental research into the “normal” physiological parameters for many wildlife species is lacking. Veterinarians can offer important perspectives in the design of research on these topics due to their expertise in comparative physiology and anatomy, immunology, disease transmission and prevention, health assessment, public health, and working in transdisciplinary teams. Advanced training in a wide variety of specialties and research areas, including epidemiology and informatics, through internships, fellowships, residencies, and dual or consecutive degree programs can enhance this impact and provide alternate/additional career opportunities. For species of particular conservation concern, veterinarians can conduct health surveys and assessments to establish baseline parameters and track health trends over time.37 Veterinarians also play a key role in disease surveillance and reporting in companion animals, livestock, and wildlife, as diverse animal species can be utilized as sentinels to monitor for infectious disease and environmental and other health hazards.37,38

Ecosystem health and sustainability actions

As habitat loss and degradation continue to be the main drivers of wildlife decline in every ecosystem, there is an alarming need to regenerate habitat and ecosystems. Sustainable agricultural and agroecological practices (eg, reduced tilling and pesticide use, reduced pharmacological use, crop biodiversity) along with multifunctional landscape planning (ie planning for diversified land use and integrated, connected, and complex landscape structure) will reduce habitat loss and pollution, increase food security, and help with climate carbon sequestration goals. Veterinary expertise is crucial in the development and implementation of these programs because interaction between livestock, wildlife, and domestic animals will need to be effectively monitored with adaptive management contingency plans in place for disease outbreaks and wildlife conflict.39 Additionally, veterinarians can enhance agricultural sustainability by helping farmers and ranchers design appropriate and efficient production models that focus on reducing inputs and increasing animal health and welfare, particularly through departments of veterinary services in their countries.40

Veterinarians can also engage in, model, and educate others by taking actions that increase sustainability in their own backyards and practices. Insects and pollinators are in decline around the world.41 Fortunately, small actions can help these species maintain their populations. Dale et al42 found that planting native flowering habitats on the un-used portions of golf courses in Florida in the US increased native bee populations as well as native predatory species that could help control turf grass pests. Veterinarians can act as champions for pollinator species by planting native flowering plants in their backyards, clinics, and communities. Likewise, veterinarians can ensure any spaces they control are wildlife friendly and help wildlife move across landscapes (Supplementary Table S1).

There is a growing movement to reduce waste in research and human and veterinary hospitals, although there is currently limited evidence of the best practices to implement in the veterinary field.43 Koytcheva et al43 suggest that veterinary practices and teaching hospitals can engage in sustainability projects across a few major areas: (1) increasing energy efficiency through use of energy efficient equipment, renewable energy, efficient thermal regulation, light management, and meters to remind practices of their energy use; (2) improving water use through installation of flow restriction devices, harvesting and recycling rainwater, and purchasing ecofriendly autoclaves; (3) reducing single use plastic and overall waste through environmentally conscious procurement and waste reduction, including using products with less wrapping materials, certified green cleaning products, reusable sharps containers; and (4) using more environmentally friendly anesthetic drugs. Additionally, veterinarians should work to reduce drug waste, and its eventual effects on animals and the environment, including responsibly using and disposing of medicines, proper antimicrobial stewardship practices, good drug stock management, and designing appropriate herd health and preventative care plans.40 Efforts that support reduced use of resources, including recycling and re-using when possible, decrease costs and protect habitats by decreasing pollution from waste and manufacturing as well as the need to harvest additional materials. Using their purchasing power, veterinarians can increase their impact by working together to encourage more sustainable manufacturing practices.

Importantly, Deluty et al44 found that clients would appreciate their veterinarians being trained in how climate change may affect their pets’ health, would like to see veterinary clinics have a sustainability certification, and would pay more for veterinary services at clinics actively working to reduce their environmental impact. These activities not only reduce waste and often make financial sense, but they are also important for mitigating climate change impacts and reducing the negative effects these products and practices have on wildlife habitat and ecosystems and ultimately veterinary patients and those who care for them.

Advocacy and communication

Veterinarians are trusted members of society.45 Kedrowicz and Royal45 found that in comparison to human physicians, the public perceived veterinarians as more “approachable, sensitive, sympathetic, patient, and understanding.” Accordingly, veterinarians have an important position of trust and respect that can be leveraged to advocate for wildlife conservation to the public, through science communication modalities, and to policymakers through governmental advocacy and participation in policy development.

At the local level, veterinarians can serve on sustainability boards to provide expertise and advocate for policies that consider biodiversity preservation and wildlife conservation as well as animal health and welfare under a changing climate. At the state or province level, veterinarians can sit on boards that advise policymakers on these issues or work in departments whose decisions affect wildlife conservation. For example, in the US, every state has a wildlife and natural resources department that develops and implements policies for wildlife management and environmental health, and in some states, there are sustainability and climate change departments. Veterinarians can build relationships with these departments as individual citizens, or members of non-governmental organizations, to advocate for evidence-based policies in these realms.

Professional veterinary organizations in the US have thus far not produced position or policy statements with advocacy and action items for veterinarians to follow with regards to climate change.46 Veterinarians in the US who are concerned about biodiversity loss and climate change should express those concerns to the AVMA and ask the governmental relations division to develop policies and strategies for giving voice to those concerns at all levels of government. In 2020, the FVE outlined their advocacy strategy for 2021 to 2025, which included promoting One Health and sustainability as a top priority for the veterinary field.47 Professional veterinary organizations worldwide should outline similar strategies, and veterinarian members can work with their organizations to do so.

At the international level, veterinarians have expertise that governments should consider when designing international policies to reduce biodiversity decline and climate change.46 The primary drivers of international law on these issues are the biennial Conference of the Parties (COP) for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the annual COP for the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC). At the CBD’s COP 15, which was held in December 2022, governments from around the world negotiated new goals in a landmark biodiversity agreement, the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, to guide global action to halt and reverse nature loss through 2030. Veterinarians should participate in planning how the framework will be implemented on the ground within their countries. The COP for the UNCCC takes place every year, and veterinarians should also be involved in the negotiations, research, and policy development activities that involve and impact domestic and wild animal welfare under a changing climate.

Veterinarians can participate in these negotiations as members of various organizations who apply to become observers of the COPs. They can also advocate through their professional organizations to policymakers that veterinary expertise must be considered in these negotiations because veterinarians are uniquely trained in understanding the links between public, animal, and environmental health. These international meetings are expensive to attend, thus requiring that organizations and national governments develop funding mechanisms for veterinarian involvement, such that the burden is not solely placed on concerned veterinarians who want to be involved. Providing opportunities to gain additional training in policy, negotiation, and advocacy work, which is currently outside the scope of most veterinary curriculums, would strengthen confidence and efficacy of participating veterinarians.

Action for individual and professional health

Taking action, however large or small, to help reduce biodiversity decline and protect wildlife populations can have a positive impact on the wellbeing of veterinarians at the individual level and collectively. It is well known that the veterinary profession is experiencing a mental health crisis.48 Climate change is linked to physical and mental health consequences from mild stress to high-risk coping behaviors and mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.49 Spending time in nature and engaging in work that supports one’s values, professional commitments, and builds community can help improve wellbeing and quality of life.49 Specifically, research indicates that positive environmental actions among youth increased their optimism, sense of hope, feelings of being in control of their life, and made them feel like they were part of the solution.49 Given the clear interest veterinary students and professionals have in animal welfare, being empowered to take action for the environment, wildlife, and the planet has the potential to provide positive mental health benefits and engaging career options and thereby help reduce some of the stress, burnout, and dissatisfaction currently present in the veterinary profession.

Conclusion and Action Items

With their diverse experiences and training, veterinarians can play a tremendous role in wildlife conservation, particularly in the face of climate change. Although advanced training and support can and should be made available to improve response and outcomes, specific wildlife expertise is not needed for veterinarians to have a positive impact on wildlife conservation and biodiversity. Veterinarians who want to make a difference for wildlife can find an action that fits their goals, capabilities, and interests (Table 1). Indeed, if every veterinarian chose at least 1 activity to commit to in the near future, the profession would more fully uphold its mission and represent a positive multiplier toward the maintenance of a sustainable and biodiverse world.

Supplementary Materials

Supplementary materials are posted online at the journal website: avmajournals.avma.org

Acknowledgments

No third-party funding or support was received in connection with the research or writing of the manuscript. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

The authors would like to thank the Naniboujou’s Research Legacy for Companion Animals and Wildlife for covering publication costs to allow open access.

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