Is Roadkill the Elephant in the Room?

If we were to ask what the biggest threats facing the survival of the iconic African Elephant are, most would say poaching or habitat loss. And you would probably be correct.

Originally published in SANParks Times.

Estimates done for a study undertaken by Colorado State University suggest 100,000 elephants have been killed for their ivory over the last three years. Loss of habitat is more difficult to quantify, as it is the knock-on effect of this loss that creates a multitude of other problems. Vehicle-collision with elephants is just one of them.

“An elephant roadkill? How can you not see an elephant on the road?” one may ask. But reports of elephants killed on roads have been received from across the continent.

One recent report came from Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe where a baby elephant was knocked down by a vehicle in the park. A visitor recorded the distressing scene which showed individual members of the herd trying to help the baby, which was later euthanised by park rangers. “It’s something that we don’t really like to think about,” explains Wendy Collinson of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Wildlife and Roads Project, “especially when it’s a baby animal, and happening in a national park where wildlife are supposed to be protected.”

People who visit protected areas do so because they love nature, and would be devastated if they were responsible for the death of an animal. “This is one of the reasons why the EWT is currently working in protected areas in South Africa to try and address the potential threat of roads on wildlife,” says Collinson.

In 2014, with the support of Bridgestone SA, the EWT initiated an assessment of roadkill rates in five selected parks in South Africa. “This five-year project attempts to reduce the impact of road users on wildlife in protected areas, and we have been using pre- and post- mitigation-surveys, to examine ways to improve driver vigilance,” says Collinson.  The project assessed drivers’ responses to various driver-alert-signage, measured through their response to fake animals placed on paved roads in Pilanesberg. Early results suggest that, before placement of signage, 50% of observed drivers were looking at the road, rather than scanning the bush for wildlife. Of these, 40% adapted their behaviour to “miss” the fake animal. “Our prediction,” adds Collinson, “is that effective signage will increase driver vigilance”.

The Roads in Parks Project will shortly be commencing surveys in Kruger National Park. “These methods have come too late to save the baby elephant in Hwange, but we hope that through further research we will find the right solution that ultimately conserves our wildlife,” concludes Collinson.

The EWT’s Wildlife and Roads Project is supported by Bridgestone SA, North West Parks Tourism Board, Copenhagen Zoo and South African National Parks.

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