Life in the Fastlane: Roadkill in the Anthropocene

Ajay Immanuel Gonji

My first close encounter with roadkill was during fieldwork for my Master’s internship, way back in 2013. I remember seeing the bloated body of a large male nilgai, fully intact, on the footpath of the Aruna Asaf Ali Marg – a 6-lane highway bifurcating the Sanjay Van city forest and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus (see image 1 & 2 below). Subsequently, I have seen several roadkills of various species, both domestic and wild, in different parts of the city. As the term suggests, ‘roadkill’ usually refers to wildlife that is killed as a result of a collision with vehicles on roads (Driessen, 2021). After legal harvesting, roadkill makes up the largest proportion of anthropogenic mortality for many vertebrates (Schwartz, 2020). Roadkill is a key phenomenon of the Anthropocene (Fishel, 2019), and it can be argued that the heavily pervasive footprint of humans in the Anthropocene has, to a large extent, been fuelled by their terrestrial expansion through the creation of roads (Schwartz, 2020; Unnikrishnan et al., 2017).

For this present article, I choose to dwell on the effects of roads on wildlife, particularly the issue of roadkill, while also attempting to understand some aspects of mobility in animals in cities.

Image 1 & 2: Roadkill of Nilgai (left) and Golden Jackal (right) on the Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, New Delhi. Image 2 credit: Suresh Babu

Road Expansion in India    

Roads are the physical manifestation of the social, economic and political connections and decisions that lead to a change in land use (Coffin, 2007). In India, the total road length has increased from 3,99,942 kilometres in 1951 to 63,86,297 kilometres in 2019 (MoRTH, 2020-21), making it a country with the second largest road network after the United States of America (see here). One of the latest road projects is the creation of the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway (see image 3 below) – an ambitious project connecting the National Capital, Delhi and the financial capital, Mumbai through a 8-lane expressway that cuts through forests, arid regions, mountains and rivers, and the first in Asia and second in the world to feature animal overpasses to facilitate unrestricted movement of wildlife (see here). While projects such as these are aimed at creating modern infrastructure that is in line with the aspirations of a rapidly developing nation, there are always ecological consequences. No matter how many overpasses or underpasses are created, the fragmentation of formerly contiguous ecologically sensitive regions will inevitably affect plants, animals and the environment as a whole.

Image 3: A section of the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway.
Image credit: Civil Techno India

Effects of Roads

According to Forman et al. (2003), roads and their accompanying traffic introduce pollutants and exotic elements, fragment populations of plants and animals, kill wildlife, and cause changes in animal behaviour. These effects are seen to have deleterious impacts on plant and animal communities, with more serious implications such as reduction in animal movement, diminished habitat quality, altered sex ratios, obstruction in gene flow and changes in the genetic structure of nearby populations (Fishel, 2019; Mazerolle et al., 2005).  For instance, the complex network of roads in urban areas (Bateman & Fleming, 2012) create a barrier effect, dividing a large continuous population into smaller, partially isolated local populations or subpopulations, with each of these subpopulations being prone to fluctuations over time and having a higher probability of extinction as compared to a larger population (Forman & Alexander, 1998). Studies have also shown how several species have adapted to the presence of roads by exhibiting avoidance behaviours, where they either altogether change their home range, or increase activity levels during times of low human disturbance, as in the case of bobcats and coyotes in North America (Kent et al., 2021).

The ecological effects of roads on plants, animals and the environment as a whole have given rise to the field of ‘road ecology’, a term first described by Richard T.T. Forman (1998) and rooted in the subjects of ecology, geography, engineering and planning (Coffin, 2007). Ever since, there have been numerous peer-reviewed papers on road ecology, besides the establishment of several organisations that are wholly dedicated to studying the field (Schwartz, 2020). More specifically, the most common themes of research in road ecology are related to (a) roadsides and adjacent strips; (b) road and vehicle effects on populations; (c) water, sediment, chemicals, and streams; (d) road network; and (e) transportation, policy and planning (Forman & Alexander, 1998).

Understanding ‘Roadkill

It has been argued that animal movements are in relation to the spatial arrangement of resources (food, water, denning sites, etc.), and animals are killed when they try to gain access to these resources (Coffin, 2007). Animals living in urban areas particularly have to negotiate very dense road networks, with very high traffic volume (Baker et al., 2007), thereby putting them in an extremely vulnerable spot. On the one hand, at an interspecific level, some species may be at a higher risk of being hit by a vehicle due to factors such as body size, behavioural characteristics, etc. ‘Deer caught in headlights’ is a phrase that is commonly used, emerging from the behaviour of certain species like deer and several small mammals, amphibians and reptiles to “freeze” when encountered by vehicle headlights or loud horns. On the other hand, at an intraspecific level, the risk of individuals being hit by a moving vehicle will depend on factors such as age, sex, reproductive status, and social status. For instance, juvenile individuals are less capable of judging traffic volume and speed as compared to older individuals who often have more “road awareness” (Baker et al., 2007).

Animals are killed by vehicles also because of human attitudes towards animals. To begin with, I wish to borrow from Marc Augé (1992) and argue that roads are  a non-place – “a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical, or concerned with identity”. The numerous asphalt-covered linear structures, lined with pavements, and filled with motorised vehicles – that which we refer to as ‘roads’ – are often seen as nothing but a means to enable the movement of large masses of commuters and passengers. Yet, in one of her recent papers, Stefanie R. Fishel (2019) stresses on human/nonhuman animal mobility and calls one to imagine roads to be spaces of mutual experience and movement. She states that, both humans and nonhuman animals move through space (roads) with similar motivations: food, rest and family. She also lays emphasis on the ethics of care, and draws one’s attention to the question of ‘whose lives counts as lives’. For instance, the death of charismatic megafauna often receives more attention than many small mammals, amphibians and reptiles. While there are lesser-known faunal species or uncharismatic mesofauna which go under the wheel or get smashed on windshields, and are merely victims, dead charismatic megafauna like tigers and lions, or the most charismatic of all megafauna – human beings – are not just victims, but victims whose death on the road is a tragedy (Michael, 2004).

“… nonhuman animals are as intentional as humans are, and roads may not be simply barriers to be overcome but routes to be purposely followed.”

(Michael, 2004)

            While urbanisation has created all kinds of challenges to animals, it has also provided opportunities to many, and species that have managed to adapt to the generally fragmented nature of urban landscapes have done so by modifying their behaviour, social ecology, and diet (Bateman & Fleming, 2012). For instance, exploratory behaviour is often related to the personality traits of animals where some animals are able to express ‘boldness’ (taking more risks) in order to take advantage of resources (Lowry et al., 2013). Therefore, we must realise that roadkill is not simply the outcome of clueless and stupid animals trying to cross roads, instead it is one of the outcomes, among several others, of animal trajectories intersecting with human trajectories. In other words, nonhuman animals are as intentional as humans are, and roads may not be simply barriers to be overcome but routes to be purposely followed (Michael, 2004). In closing, I cannot agree more with Stefanie R. Fishel (2019) who writes, “…responding to the Anthropocene means learning how to share space with nonhuman animals and other critters, on the road, and elsewhere.”


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