ALL ABOARD THE CONSERVATION EXPRESS

Wendy Collinson, Manager, EWT Wildlife and Transport Programme
wendyc@ewt.org.za

Prior to COVID-19, animals had, over time, adapted their ways in response to our increased transportation networks, namely railways and roads. Many avoided these corridors due to the impact on their survival – that is, a mortality caused by colliding with a train or a vehicle. With fewer people travelling and limited transportation of goods on our rail networks, it has not taken long for wildlife to notice and take advantage of this, reverting to their normal and preferred ways. They are now foraging and hunting through moving back and forth at will between various parts of their habitats, including crossing railways and roads that are now quieter. We have also seen increased animal presence in many of our towns and cities as animal confidence increases due to low human presence.

From a research perspective, this begs the question, what happens as more people return to their usual travel habits? We are presented with a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and insight into studying animal behaviour from before, during, and after the current restrictions placed on travel. The variation in transport volumes due to different phases of allowed activity for multiple species across the world will be incredibly interesting to monitor.

With this in mind, the EWT’s Wildlife and Transport Programme (WTP) is launching two new projects, both supported by GreenMatter, with two Master’s students jumping on board to expand on the work already being undertaken by the programme. Research will be conducted on the Balule Nature Reserve to determine wildlife-rail mortality rates as well as animal behaviour adjacent to the railway. Wendy Collinson, the WTP’s programme manager states that, “whilst we had initially already decided on the focus of these two research projects, we had not anticipated the global pandemic and current travel restrictions. Consequently, these projects have since evolved to incorporate the current situation and will be pioneering in understanding animal behaviour. The research will provide possible answers to the potential difference that can be made to reduce railkill, simply through reducing train volumes on routes, particularly in a protected area or nature reserve”.

In Africa, the expansion of railway networks is associated with the projected rapid urbanisation and the development of mines that will produce large volumes of bulk goods. Railways are essential transportation corridors that facilitate the movement of goods and people, but railways and trains can also negatively affect wildlife through collision mortalities, habitat loss, barrier effects, and disturbances such as noise and light. The occurrence of mortalities due to train collision can contribute to the population decline of wildlife and pose a serious threat to biodiversity conservation. This has been observed in Scandinavia with Reindeer, as well as Black Bear in North America. The occurrences of wildlife mortalities as a result of collision with trains have serious implications in protected areas, such as the Balule Nature Reserve, where the railway traverses the landscape, potentially impacting conservation and wildlife management on the reserve, not to mention the potential costs to Transnet through repairs to the line and train.

Siboniso Thela and Nthabiseng Mampa are two GreenMatter Fellows who will be working in collaboration with the EWT to understand how the Phalaborwa–Hoedspruit railway line in Balule Nature Reserve affects animals. Siboniso has begun his initial fieldwork, under strict conditions, with the correct personal protective equipment and will be examining the differences between seasons and mortalities of mammals on the railway. He has been setting up camera traps adjacent to the railway line to monitor animal movements, as well as what type of animals make use of the railway line. Nthabiseng will determine whether railways act as a barrier against the movement of animals across the landscape, with the unique opportunity of monitoring this during the various stages of the lockdown periods.

South Africa has the 10th longest rail network in the world, one of the most advanced in Africa. These lines are used for both passenger transport and freight and cross a variety of landscapes from urban developments to agricultural farmland and wildlife conservation areas, often bringing trains into conflict with wildlife. Almost no attention has been paid to the threat this poses to the country’s biodiversity and the people using the rail network. Therefore, the information gleaned from projects such as this are of extreme importance to conservation and economic development in the country.

Users of our transportation networks need to be mindful that wildlife has become used to our absence. They may not be expecting trains and vehicles and we therefore need to be extra cautious of wildlife activity in these areas, giving them time to adapt back to knowing we are there. Ultimately, as our transportation corridors eventually reopen, we should embrace practices that reflect human-wildlife coexistence, rather than human-wildlife conflict and take the opportunity of this lockdown to reflect and see how we can be more organised in the future to find a balance.

This project is supported by GreenMatter and is a collaborative project amongst the EWT and the Universities of Venda, Witwatersrand, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Wildlife and Ecological Investments and Transfrontier Africa-Balule. This huge team of experts is devoted to this project and hopes to gain a real understanding of the how animals behave around railways, and what preventative measures can be put in place to curb wildlife mortalities.