Why did the elephant cross the road?

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Photo: Phubadee Na Songkhla / Shutterstock

In the early 1950s, carving out a road in the newly-created Tsavo National Park in Kenya involved “hacking through scrubland,” according to Dame Daphne Sheldrick in her memoir, Love, Life, and Elephants. Founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an organization that rescues orphaned elephants and rhinos, she describes the park landscape as “inhospitable country, covered in an entanglement of dense scrub vegetation infested with tsetse fly...” but “known for its diversity of indigenous species, including fearsome lions, breeding herds of elephants, and thousands of black rhinos.”
Today, the two-lane Mombasa-Nairobi highway (A109) dissects the park to form Tsavo East and Tsavo West. This causes problems for wildlife. Richard Leakey, Chairman of Kenya’s Wildlife Service, says that 18 elephants have been killed from collisions with trucks, and other wildlife become roadkill on a regular basis.

“We do want infrastructure where we can get to a good standard of living, and we do want wildlife,” said Leakey at a World Bank presentation in April 2017, where he spoke on current challenges to Kenya’s wildlife such as climate change, poaching, and infrastructure development. But he said reconciling the two needs facilitation and dialogue to move beyond pure opposition between conservationists and developers.

This Saturday, March 3, marks World Wildlife Day—an ideal time to consider whether infrastructure and wildlife can successfully intersect. This is especially important as roads and railways passing through wildlife-rich areas are on the increase  across the globe.

Some experts say animals and vehicles can be managed if solutions are factored into development plans from the beginning.

Other specialists are skeptical.

“As we break off wildlife corridors because of infrastructure and increasing human populations we are putting the ecosystems on life support,” said World Bank lead economist Richard Damania. “There are some who believe we can manage these closed ecosystems, but it takes an immense amount of self-assurance and confidence in our understanding of ecosystems to suggest this with certainty.”

Here are more examples of infrastructure development putting wildlife at risk:

Linear infrastructure in Asia threatens to unravel tiger conservation efforts  . In addition to tiger poaching, their habitat in Asia is fragmented by roads, railway, high-tension wires, as well as water and gas pipelines. According to a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund, at least 11,000 kilometers of new roads and railways are planned for construction through prime tiger landscapes.

Roads cutting through the Amazon threaten biodiversity. The Peruvian Congress recently approved a bill declaring it in the national interest to construct new roads in the Madre de Dios region, which would cut through a mosaic of different protected areas in one of the most biologically diverse places on earth and could lead to loss and isolation of animal habitats.

Railway lines crossing elephant habitats in India have led to over 200 elephant deaths. Wildlife experts say India has the largest number of train accidents involving elephants in the world. Just last month a 14-car passenger train in northeastern India plowed into a herd of elephants killing two calves and three adults; in December another five fell victim to a train collision.

Giant panda populations in China are isolated by roads and development  . A recent study in Nature Ecology & Evolution showed that road construction is a major factor driving habitat loss and fragmentation, creating small isolated populations that cannot interbreed.

In another scientific paper published in 2017, the authors project that 25 million kilometers of new paved roads will be built by 2050 (enough to circle the planet more than 600 times), with 90 percent constructed in developing countries—which hold the world’s most biodiverse areas.

The road ahead does not have to be altogether bleak for wildlife if governments, planners, and investors in infrastructure projects—including multilateral development banks (MDBs)—consider these interventions: 
  • Identify critical wildlife habitats and designate them as infrastructure-free zones.
  • Create wildlife corridors that link national parks and fragmented animal populations so as not to disturb breeding, feeding, and migration routes.
  • Enforce environmental safeguards through all stages of the infrastructure cycle, including the integration of a Zero Poaching framework.
  • Build overpasses, underpasses, and road tunnels so wildlife can safely cross roads and railway lines. Railway tracks could also be fenced except for in corridor areas. Sections of Kenya’s new high-speed standard gauge railway that runs through both Nairobi and Tsavo West National Parks includes some bridges under which elephants and giraffes can pass.
  • Conduct spatial analysis and environmental impact assessments while planning infrastructure projects.
  • Post speed limits and signage to alert travelers of the presence of wildlife.
  • Strengthen enforcement and monitoring in wildlife areas.
Governments should consult civil society groups, NGOs, and technical experts when developing infrastructure-related policies in these areas. MDBs and private investors can make sure the potential consequences on wildlife from large-scale road and highway projects are thoroughly assessed and addressed before providing financing. 
The prominent ecologist Thomas Lovejoy said: “Roads are the seeds of tropical forest destruction.”
Let’s work to ensure they don’t take root to contribute to the demise of the world’s iconic wildlife.


Related links:
Corridors to coexistence: reducing human-wildlife conflict

Economic Boom or Ecologic Doom? : Using Spatial Analysis to Reconcile Road Development with Forest Conservation

What does Teddy Roosevelt have to do with PPPs? Thinking about the origin — and the future — of conservation

Conservation and Economic Development: Is it a Forked Road?

VIDEO: Working Together to Save Wildlife and Ecosystems

VIDEO: It takes just one road to destroy a forest



Sunny Kaplan

Communications Specialist, World Bank

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