Skip to main content

New research outlines the road to coexisting with wildlife

Story by Ariel Mark, contributor
Originally published by; republished in part via The Global Forest Reporting Network

Habitat loss and illegal hunting are leading drivers behind mammal population decline and extinction in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. But what's driving these drivers? Road infrastructure, according to research. Dr. Reuben Clements* from James Cook University, along with his colleagues, conducted the first-ever comprehensive study examining the impacts of road infrastructure on mammal populations in Southeast Asia. Their findings were recently published in PLOS One.

An elephant crosses State Road 156. Photo by Reuben Clements.

Roads pose extreme environmental challenges, particularly for conservation efforts in the global south, where roads are often intertwined with economic growth and habitat degradation. From just 2005 to 2010, Southeast Asian landscapes saw an increase of total paved roads from 16 to 51 percent, according to data from the World Bank. 

Southeast Asian countries are astonishingly underrepresented in studies examining the impact land-altering road networks have on mammal populations, according to the study. However, the relative few that have been conducted indicate the situation may be dire. Scientists estimate 21 to 48 percent of native mammal species in Southeast Asia may be extinct by 2100 due to habitat loss and illegal hunting. Roads often exacerbate these threats and additionally impose direct negative impacts on mammal populations such as habitat fragmentation, discouraging movement within a population's range, and hindering gene flow between populations. Roadkill also becomes more prevalent with the introduction of road networks. Moreover, illegal hunting increases as poachers gain easier access to wildlife.

A remote camera "trap" catches a tiger on the move. Poaching and habitat loss are major threats impacting the Malayan tiger in the wild. 

The researchers recommended ten mitigation methods for minimizing environmental impacts of road infrastructure, and informing conservationists and government agencies. Among their strategies, they emphasize the importance of maintaining forest quality and connectivity in areas surrounding existing roads. They also suggest an increase in law enforcement near roads bisecting endangered species habitat, which could deter illegal poaching.

Furthermore, an improved dialogue between road development agencies and conservationists is crucial for building ecologically sound roads. Additionally, raising public awareness of the negative environmental impacts related to road construction could help prevent further habitat degradation. 

*Dr. Reuben Clements, a WPZ Partners for Wildlife Conservation Associate, leads Woodland Park Zoo’s and Panthera’s efforts to conserve tigers and their forest home in Malaysia. Learn more about our conservation work, then explore the story further in the new Banyan Wilds exhibit opening May 2.