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Existential lessons from road kill



It was just after six in the morning when it happened. The sun had barely risen above the surrounding hills, which were white from a rare overnight snowfall, and I was out walking with my dogs. We paused as a mob of kangaroos bounded through the trees. When I thought they'd all passed, we continued on our way.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth KolbertBut I was wrong. About 15 metres in front of us stood a straggler. She quickly ducked behind a eucalypt, melting into the landscape. Sensing her fear, I pulled the dog leads tight and turned to walk in the other direction. Seeing us turn, she bolted out from the tree, heading for the back of the mob. Eyes on us, she veered wide towards the road just as a white station wagon came speeding around the corner.

I screamed as it made impact, but the driver either didn't notice, or didn't care. He just sped on.

Scientists have estimated that at least four million native animals are killed on Australian roads every year. That is a lot of animals. A lot of lives. But, what can we do about it?

On an individual level, there are some steps we can all take, such as driving carefully, using headlights and being more aware of what is on the edge, as well as the middle, of the road. Of course, we can also create safer pathways for wildlife — over, under, or around our roads. But, more importantly, we can stop encroaching into their habitat.

Koalas, for example, are being driven into extinction through habitat clearing, which is forcing them onto our roads. If they do become extinct, they will form part of the sixth mass extinction that scientists tell us is currently unfolding. And, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation, Australia is currently leading the world in animal extinction rates.

In her recent book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert has explained that we have placed animals in a lethal double bind: they have to move due to the effects of climate change and habitat destruction, but their pathways are blocked by roads or occupied by humans. Some might ask why this mass extinction should matter to us, but we ignore it at our peril.


"With around four million animals dying on our roads each year, it's a disturbingly common event. We are incredibly bad at sharing this planet, and it doesn't seem to be working in our favour."


The loss of biodiversity and the collapse of ecosystems will have dire consequences for our survival. We rely on these ecosystems to grow our food, to purify our water, and for so many other natural resources that we take for granted. All of which highlights another issue that Kolbert raises, which is that our role in bringing about this mass extinction raises fundamental questions about humanity's relationship to the natural world and our place within it.

It is these fundamental questions that strike me as I watch the young kangaroo's hindlegs buckled beneath her. They are bleeding, clearly broken, but she still manages to scramble across the road before collapsing on the grass.

I spot another dog walker nearby. 'Do you have a phone?' He nods and pulls one from his coat pocket. 'Can you call the ranger?' He nods again.

Keeping as far from the terrified kangaroo as I can, I walk the dogs towards home. Only then do I spot the other stragglers. They stand among the trees, eyes fixed on their friend, waiting quietly for the predators to leave.

As soon as I get home, I call the ranger — just to be sure they'll come. After confirming the kangaroo's location, they tell me a ranger is on the way. I try to thank them, but the words catch in my throat, and I start to sob.

As harrowing as I found this experience, with around four million animals dying on our roads each year, it's a disturbingly common event. We are incredibly bad at sharing this planet, and it doesn't seem to be working in our favour.

As Kolbert's book points out, our technological advances have alienated us from the biosphere that sustains us, fundamentally altering our relationship to the natural world. We may once have thought these advances would provide us with protection from the destruction we reap, but it has become abundantly clear that we are not immune. Beyond that, nothing can provide immunity from the alienation itself.

Surely it doesn't have to be like this? As we reach a collective understanding that we cannot continue to live in direct conflict with nature, we will need to rediscover what harmony looks like.

I'm not sure what this will utimately mean, but I'm pretty sure it will involve slowing down. And, as we work to heal the damage we have caused to our home, and to heal our relationship to the natural world that sustains us, maybe we might also heal something within ourselves.

That is my hope for the future.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, road kill, extinction, The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert



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Existing comments

Maybe if the dogs hadn't frightened the kangaroo it wouldn't have cleared off blindly across the road!?

dog lover | 26 September 2019  

Dr Cristy, I can appreciate your mix of emotions after witnessing a "hit and run" and then being part of the aftermath. Nobody wants to hit any creature while traveling but the liklihood is (for instance) a commuter going to work will weigh up the inconvenience of lost time/income and their inability to attend to a wounded animal...then drive on. Animals and automobiles don't mix; you can't fence every roadside - otherwise "biodiversity" would be limited to each boundary zones' mini biosphere. If a team performed an ICAM (incident investigation) on this scenario the likely outcome might be to restrict vehicle speed with signage OR persons walking their dogs through wildlife zones. Roads are necessary, cars are necessary, wildlife needs protection. ..but there's no argument that walking a domestic dog a known wildlife area should be continued. I live in a rural area designated for dog breeding, I have koalas, roos and wallabies because I don't have a dog...my neighbors don't. Go figure...

ray | 26 September 2019  

Perhaps your key phrase for introspective is "we can stop encroaching into their habitat".

Ray | 27 September 2019  

Kristy the number of kangaroos and wallabies killed each year for human consumption and pet food is staggering. If the government quota for the number of kangaroos to be killed is 5.5 million per year then over 10 million kangaroos will be put through the abattoirs. France have road underpasses even for frogs. In Hope Island we regularly see big Greys killed by the boys with their bull bars for sport. On the other side of Salt Water creek there is an Eastern Grey Reserve. But it doesnt protect them from vehicles. And the traffic is increasing dramatically. On the golf courses at Sanctuary Cove and Hope Island Resort they sterilize the males so they cant breed. Ten years back they had a 10 acre koala farm at Guanaba which was a big breeding success story at the time. However they were bred for export overseas and it didnt last. But it proved they could successfully be bred in captivity. The only thing they can do to stop road kill is fence off the roads with Cyclone wire and create wildlife corridors to underpass box culverts where they can cross in safety.

francis Armstrong | 27 September 2019  

Kangaroos have hearing outside human range. Perhaps vehicles equipped with devices that broadcast humanly inaudible warning sounds (eg., foot thumping to warn of predators – see reference below) might help. In this case, the animal might have stayed behind the tree until the car had passed. In another context, echo-locating by ships and submarines apparently confuse whales. In the hierarchy of power, it seems that humans will always be getting in the way of animals.

roy chen yee | 29 September 2019  

'Perhaps your key phrase for introspective is "we can stop encroaching into their habitat".' Yes, Ray, that was indeed my key point. I think, however, that you may have misunderstood the location of this incident: it was in the middle of a built up Canberra suburb.

Cristy | 30 September 2019  

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