Misery Roads and fate of wild cats in Sri Lanka

While road systems are imperative for current development they are influenced on animals in several ways, for instant fast moving vehicles course for thousands of road kills per hour all around the world. In Sri Lankan context impact of these road kills for the wild animal population is not studied properly. Most scientific work about road kill has been done in protected ecosystems in the island.  During my career as a field biologist, I was able to spent a long period in Sri Lankan forests and jungle areas, not only that I have been working with rural communities near the protected areas for more than 6 years. Especially, according to my observations mammals are the main victims. There are some studies carried out in the world about this animal road kills, according to those researchers, no generalization can be made about the role of season or habitat in road kills because pooled data hide individual trends. I believe that this phenomenon can apply to our country because recorded information does not interprets 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, time of day, season and place; otherwise important patterns will be missed. 

Roads impose several ecological impacts on local biodiversity including habitat fragmentation, changed microclimates and micro habitats, pollution, anthropogenic disturbances, disturb the migration roots of animal species. These circumstances directly impact on make changes in animal behavior. Here we focused about the animal mortality due to vehicular collision. Here we discuss about the impact of these road systems to decline the population of endangered wild cat species via fast moving vehicles near the jungles, jungle corridors and in advanced near urban wildlife habitats.

In 1993 amendment of Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, leopards conserve as fully protected species along with the jungle cat (Felis chaus). The other two wild cat species in Sri Lanka, namely the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) and the rusty-spotted cat (P. rubiginosus), were given protected status in 1970. That means the fishing cat and the rusty-spotted cat had more protection under the law than the leopard from 1970 to 1993. The last amendment to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 2009 moved all four species into the newly established “strictly protected species” category. Therefore it is not an easy thing to neglect any of adverse effect impact on these strictly protected small wild cat species in the country because they are endemic to our Island.

In 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 (Spellerberg 1998); 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 (Miththapala 2006). Therefore road systems always overlap with their migration roots. 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 led to an animal collision in the roads by fast moving vehicles. 

When considering road fatalities of wild cats, jungle cats and fishing cats are the most frequent victims. Due to their foraging behaviors and available food sources they used to come near human settlements to find food.  In other words, human activities change their habitats which led to change their natural behaviors. For instance, Jungle cats are very common around village areas. They used to roam around villages to get food from the animal farms/ paddy fields/even home gardens. Therefore these animals have a high potential to face road accidents when they cross the roads among paddy fields.  Fishing cats always can be observed near aquatic and semi aquatic habitats especially around paddy fields and water canals. I have observed several incidents during our night surveys around rural villages in the several parts of the Island, most of these cats are nocturnal therefore at night fishing cats waiting near the road sides to catch frogs, which were crossing road from one side to another. This behavior led them to come across with road accidents. While them catching their food there is a high chance to get killed by fast moving vehicles. Apart from that, there is another huge impact from the high way road system in Sri Lanka. There are large numbers of road kills can be observed in the highways, most of these kills not being recorded. Most of the road construction activities directly impact on natural habitats even they are established after Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Some highway road systems separate wetland habitats and create conflict situations on the 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.

My opinion is as citizens all of us responsible for the protection of these valuable species in our Island. Therefore, not only the government as responsible citizens we have to play a role in wildlife conservation. Unfortunately, the so-called “citizen science” can identify the most affected species but produces data that are very different from those generated by professional scientists in terms of the proportion of affected groups. Community awareness about the importance of wildlife is the key factor to implement mitigation solutions for this problem.

According to some researchers, there are some key factors led people to come across with road kills those are such as over speeding, Use of cell phones, Careless driving and Poor knowledge about wildlife, behavior of wild animals and habitats. Therefore it is important to improve awareness of the local community towards these incidents. When considering building new road systems proper environmental impact assessments should be done.

Therefore it is vital to get management decisions to mitigate these problems for the conservation of our wild cats along with other wildlife in Sri Lanka. 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 the public roads which identified with high wildlife occupancy during the night time should be a better solution to avoid road kills of nocturnal wild cats. Although building up green bridges, wildlife overpasses, and underpasses can establish unimpeded connectivity, such endeavors are some methods used in developed countries to protect their nature and wildlife. 

To conclude Sri Lankan small cats are endemic endangered highly protected animals. Therefore authorities should take necessary decisions to avoid these road kills of these valuable cats before them extinct from the natural habitats. Our Felidae Carnivora Project (FCP) aims to address this problem with ongoing research projects and improve local community awareness towards conservation of these valuable wild cats in different geographical regions in the island. 

Chathuranga Dharmarathne

Senior Field Biologist

Felidae Carnivora Project

Sri Lanka

PC-Chathuranga Dharmarathne and Chandima Fernando