Roadkill. For the motorist, this word may invoke the frustration of vehicle damage or a potentially dangerous incident; little more. It is something to be avoided, to look away from on a long journey. However, for our wildlife, the effects of humans and their vehicles are far-reaching and deadly. South Africa’s roads are a direct threat to the diversity of local flora and fauna, and there is a pressing need to find a solution that protects them.
For Wendy Collinson, a field worker with the Endangered Wildlife Trust, minimising the impact of roads and vehicles on wildlife has become her career. It is something she never anticipated when she took a break from her job as a teacher in the United Kingdom to undertake volunteer work in South Africa.
“I was volunteering as an assistant researcher with the Endangered Wildlife Trust and I was tracking large carnivores,” she says. “As I was driving along the roads, I noticed a lot of dead animals. Initially, I associated it with just being part of South Africa. Then I discovered it was a global thing and decided to turn it into a more robust study.”
Collinson undertook a literature review. She realised that there had already been significant research on roads in more developed countries such as the United States and Europe, and on how they fragment populations, create barriers and damage habitats. She decided to do a more robust survey, driving set routes every day with the goal of doing a Master’s degree in zoology.
“Looking at the baseline data just for roadkill, and the traffic volumes for tourism and mining activity, we ended up publishing a number of papers,” says Collinson. “We then launched a national campaign, asking members of the public to submit roadkill data, introducing a mobile app and using social media to gather ad hoc data. More stakeholders and supporters grew interested in the work we were doing, and before I knew it, my Master’s became the Wildlife and Roads Project.”
Collinson now co-ordinates a variety of research projects that examine the effect of roads on South Africa’s wildlife and find ways to reduce roadkill. She works closely with the transport sector and academia, with the goal of developing a body of knowledge to inform development and planning decisions regarding future road designs. This will, in turn, reduce the impact of roads on South Africa’s flora and fauna.
“In addition to roads, we realised that other infrastructure impacted on wildlife deaths,” says Collinson. “Railways, marine and coastal shipping, airports – the entire transport sector affects biodiversity. Interestingly, while there is an insurance offset for the loss of human life when involved in a collision with an animal, the cost to biodiversity is rarely considered.
“We’ve jumped from roads to rail and are gathering ad hoc data there, as well as undertaking a scoping report on marine and coastal shipping. This project has now expanded all over the country. We aren’t just focused on roadkill, but also on what we can do to prevent it and mitigate it.”
The work has expanded further into protected areas – wildlife are being run over in places where they should be safest. “In the parks, we are trialling solutions to reduce roadkill as well as understand and change driver behaviour. Every aspect of the work done and the data gathered has been put through rigorous processes as it has to be utterly robust before it can be used to motivate for support or change.”