The Truly Serious Side of Roadkill

by |January 8, 2019

In many parts of the world, roads are major threats to wildlife. There are two simple reasons. For one, they cut up habitat into ever-smaller, unsustainable fragments. More immediately, speeding vehicles traveling those roads are constantly mowing down animals. Nothing makes this clearer than a disturbing new film from India, where one of the world’s fastest-expanding road networks is fragmenting the few remaining refuges of many endangered creatures.

In United States, roads dotted with “highway pizza” are something of a joke; most of the dead are common squirrels, raccoons and other species often regarded as overpopulous and expendable. Roadkill cookbooks offer recipes for Pavement Possum and Chili con Carnage. But the light touch masks the scale of the killing: by one estimate, a million animals every day, including domestic cats and dogs, and significant numbers of endangered species including wolves and turtles.

The film, “From Killer Roads to Humane Highways,” suggests the problem in India is much worse. In a country where only 5 percent of land is officially protected, little two-lane byways are being expanded into superhighways, and new roads are being pushed through wildlife reserves at an astonishing pace. Other linear intrusions into previously unbroken forests include power lines, pipelines and railroads.

The results are hard to watch. The film starts with a ground-level view of a turtle on a road shoulder, inches from a raging torrent of cars and trucks. You know this probably won’t end well. It goes on to extremely graphic footage of tigers, snakes, elephants, monkeys and other creatures that tried t cross, but didn’t make it. Some are still alive. In one sequence, a person with a cell phone follows a magnificent leopard apparently just hit in its hindquarters by a vehicle, slowly dragging itself off in to a slow and agonizing death. In another, a whole family of elephants, youngsters to adults, lies by a railroad track, all stricken down together.

The film doesn’t argue that new roads shouldn’t be built, but it does point out that they could be made safer for wildlife. Proven methods include construction of underpasses and overpasses at key crossing points; fences to steer animals away from dangerous stretches; and rerouting of roads to avoid critical habitat.

Along with Krithi Karanth and Ullas Karanth of the Centre for Wildlife Studies India, Earth Institute professor Ruth DeFries co-leads a project on landscapes funded by the Science for Nature and People Program, which worked with the producers of the film. DeFries lives part-time near northern India’s Kanha Tiger Reserve, where surrounding lands are being increasingly dissected by roads and power lines, so she knows the problem firsthand. She also organizes the Network for Conserving Central India, which aims to bring together multiple partners for conserving biodiversity and fostering sustainable development. The film was directed by leading wildlife filmmaker Shekar Dattatri. Some 40 photographers contributed images to the project.

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