Little Steps towards Conservation
By Chathuranga Dharmarathne
Fast- moving vehicles are the cause for thousands of road kills per hour all around the world. In a Sri Lankan context the impact of road kills of the wild animal population has not been studied properly.
Most scientific work about road kills has been done in protected ecosystems. According to my observation mammals are the main victims. There are studies carried out in the world about these animal road kills and according to those researchers, no generalisation can be made about the role of season or habitat in road kills because pooled data hides individual trends. This phenomenon can apply to our country as well because recorded information does not interpret the impacts regarding the most endangered species. Therefore, it is more important that when recording data, researchers should keep separate records by age, sex, species, and time of day, season and place; otherwise important patterns will be missed.
Knocked down by fast-moving vehicles
Roads impose several ecological impacts on local biodiversity including habitat fragmentation, changed microhabitats, pollution, and anthropogenic disturbances that disturb the migration routes of animal species. These circumstances directly impact on making changes in animal behaviour. Here we focus on animal mortality due to vehicular collision. In addition to mammals, we saw several road kills of lizard species, rodents, birds, and even butterflies in national parks due to fast-moving vehicles.
Regarding small wild cats in Sri Lanka, road kills are reported from all over the country. These carnivores tend to have large home ranges and actively roam and defend large territories. Therefore, such requirements may predispose these large cats and small cats to road fatalities while crossing access roads. The population sizes of these carnivores are small and declining in Sri Lanka owing to habitat destruction, fragmentation, and vengeful killing. Therefore road systems always overlap with their migration routes. With the development of the road system of Sri Lanka, even away from the main cities, we can observe good road conditions which drive people to travel comfortably and even faster. This situation leads to animal collision on the roads by fast- moving vehicles.
When considering road fatalities, wild cats, jungle cats and fishing cats are the most frequent victims. Due to their foraging behaviours and available food sources they come near human settlements to find food. In other words, human activities changed their habitats which led to changes in their natural behaviours. For instance, jungle cats are very common around village areas. They roam around villages to get food from the animal farms, paddy fields and even home gardens. Therefore these animals have a high potential to face road accidents when they cross roads among paddy fields. Fishing cats can always be observed near aquatic and semi-aquatic habitats especially around paddy fields and water canals. Most of these cats are nocturnal therefore at night fishing cats wait near the roadsides to catch frogs that cross the road from one side to another. This behaviour leads them to come across road accidents. In catching their food there is a high chance of getting killed by fast-moving vehicles.
The effect of highways
There is another huge impact from the highway road system in Sri Lanka. There are large numbers of road kills that can be observed on the highways, most of these kills not being recorded. Most of the road construction activities directly impact natural habitats even if they are established after an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Some highway road systems separate wetland habitats and create conflict situations on wildlife ecological activities. Therefore no one can neglect the importance of landscape connectivity or mitigation of wildlife road mortality, which may aggravate the negative impacts of roads on local and regional biodiversity.
Community awareness about the importance of wildlife is the key factor to implement mitigation solutions for this problem. According to Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Zoology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Professor Darshani Mahaulpatha, there are some key factors that led people to come across road kills such as over speeding, use of cell phones, careless driving and poor knowledge about wildlife, behaviour of wild animals and habitats. Therefore it is important to improve awareness of the local community about these incidents. When considering building new road systems proper environmental impact assessments should be done.
Real speed limitation is the simplest, effective mitigation measure, apart from that, road barriers, display signboards and wildlife monitoring activities near hotspots are some possible methods to avoid these impacts. Closing public roads which are identified with high wildlife occupancy during the night time should be a better solution to avoid road kills of nocturnal wild cats. Building up green bridges, wildlife overpasses, and underpasses can establish unimpeded connectivity and such endeavours are some methods used in developed countries to protect nature and wildlife.
Hence, to address these problems the Wildlife Circle of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura initiated a project to educate local people around the protected areas to mitigate road kills via awareness programmes and display signboards.
The research team of the Wildlife Circle commenced their project at Maduru Oya National Park on 16 March 2021. As a second step, the team set up a series of road signs at the Horton Plains National Park on 2 April 2021. To conclude, Sri Lankan small cats are endemic, endangered, highly protected animals. Therefore the authorities should take necessary decisions to avoid the road kills of these valuable cats before they become extinct from their natural habitats. Our Felidae Carnivora Project (FCP) aims to address this problem with ongoing research projects and improving local community awareness towards the conservation of these valuable wild cats in different geographical regions on the island.
(The author is a Research Scientist at the Department of Zoology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura)