Roadkill. Who hasn’t had the grizzly experience of seeing it, or worse, causing it? In the urban jungle it’s usually cats, dogs and the occasional rat. Birds are also susceptible; in fact the site of a bird killed on the road is so commonplace we don’t even bat an eyelid anymore.
But beyond the city’s borders, roads are responsible for the deaths of millions of wild animals every year.
Wendy Collinson runs the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Wildlife and Transport Programme. Between 2012 and 2013 she undertook research on wildlife roadkill in the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area in Limpopo. Her project ran over 120 days and covered 12 000 km of road, both dirt and tarred.
She recorded 1 121 wildlife roadkill carcasses, an eye-opening average of nine animals a day, made up of 52% birds, 30% reptiles, 26% mammals and 2% amphibians. The most commonly killed animals included various owls, nightjars, rodents and small antelope, rollers, Scrub Hares, African Civets, Mozambique Spitting Cobras, Brown House Snakes, Flap-necked Chameleons and Eastern Olive Toads. Some of the more unusual species recorded were a porcupine, a Vervet Monkey and even an Brown Hyaena.
Endangered species are by no means immune. A chilling story tells of seven African Wild Dogs killed at once on a road in the Waterberg, while another two Wild Dogs were killed in separate incidents on roads near Wendy’s study area. If one considers that there are only about 450 of these Endangered carnivores left in South Africa, ignoring the problem starts to seem irresponsible.
Roadkill: An International Concern
It’s not only a South African problem. In Iran surveys recently showed that at least 11 Cheetahs were killed on roads between 2005 and 2011. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies the Cheetah as Globally Vulnerable, with numbers decreasing.
In Australia, a recent study showed that at least 2 205 Tasmanian Devils are killed on Tasmanian roads each year. Up to 50% of the Tasmanian Devil population in Cradle Mountain National Park is killed on the Park’s roads. This species is classified as Endangered.
Other threatened species affected include the USA’s Critically Endangered Red Wolf, Africa’s Endangered Ethiopian Wolf, Europe’s Critically Endangered Iberian Lynx and South Africa’s own Western Leopard Toad, an Endangered species found only in the Western Cape.
Even the giants in the animal world are at risk. In separate incidents in South Africa, trucks have run over and killed a rhinoceros, a giraffe and five buffalo in a herd. Colliding with these bigger animals is a serious risk for human safety and many people lose their lives every year as a result of either crashing into wildlife, or swerving to avoid an animal, so causing an accident.
Innovations Save (Wild)Lives
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There have been some interesting innovations to protect wildlife near roads. The Netherlands is leading the design of bridges to help animals cross highways safely. These also connect habitats so that wildlife populations don’t become isolated from one another. While this solution works well in a country where there are no large predators, sceptics say it’s inappropriate for places like the Limpopo province, where predators could simply lie in wait at one end of the bridge and pick off the prey animals crossing over. South Africa therefore needs to design its own solutions, suited to its own conditions and species.
In some parts of the country signs have been erected to warn motorists of the presence of wildlife. While these go a long way towards encouraging thoughtful driving, the legal speed at which cars may travel on highways makes it very difficult to avoid collisions if wild animals suddenly run or fly onto the road. So it seems the responsibility can’t all lie with the drivers; the roads construction companies and agencies need to be involved.
The EWT’s project now aims to generate a South African sensitivity map, showing wildlife roadkill hotspot areas. “With this information we’ll be in a better position to make recommendations for road construction,” Wendy says. She suggests solutions such as channelling wildlife along roadside fencing towards safe crossovers. She also points out that Environmental Impact Assessments for road developments don’t currently consider the potential impact on wildlife as part of their usual processes. “We can’t compromise the environment entirely for the sake of roads. We need to think about the routing of new roads,” she says.
What Can You Do?
The 4X4 community is in an excellent position to help develop this sensitivity map. If you come across wildlife roadkill during your adventures, simply take a GPS point and make a note of the species, take a photo, or simply write down a description of the animal if you’re not sure what it is. If you don’t have a GPS handy, record the nearest town and the road name if possible. Send this information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The EWT is developing a smartphone App to make data collection easier. Once it’s ready, you’ll be able to take a photo and simply forward it to them; the App will do the rest.
Along with the privilege of being an off-road adventurer comes a responsibility towards the natural environment. Wendy offers the following advice for responsible driving, both on and off the road:
- Drive within the speed limit to increase your own and the animal’s reaction times. Slow down if you know there’s a possibility of wildlife coming onto the road.
- Nocturnal species are the most vulnerable to being hit on roads. Drive a little slower at night and if you see an animal in the road ahead, dim your lights and hoot. Car headlights blind animals so that they don’t always move away.
- Don’t throw food scraps or other rubbish out of your car since it attracts wildlife and increases the risk of roadkill;
- If you hit and injure a wild animal, call the nearest wildlife rehabilitation centre or vet. Be careful of handling potentially dangerous animals yourself.
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