Scientists are tracing the roads of Costa Rica to help save feral cats

Early in the morning and sometimes late at night, Daniela Araya-Gamboa puts on a reflective vest and walks the roads of Costa Rica. The investigator looks for wild animals that were unable to successfully navigate the roads.

Araya-Gamboa is coordinator of Panthera’s Wild Cat Friendly Paths Project in Costa Rica. Panthera is a global organization dedicated to the conservation of the world’s wild cats and their ecosystems.

Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It is believed to be home to around half a million animal and plant species.

It also has more than 600 kilometers (372 miles) of highways which, according to Panthera, is the highest density in Central America. All those roads are a threat to the country’s wildlife. They cause the fragmentation of their habitat and cause accidents between vehicles and animals.

During the last decade, 461 feral cats have died on the roads of Costa Rica.

Araya-Gamboa’s project is focused on saving more feral cats by reducing threats to their survival. She and her team track areas where road kills often occur so they can limit problems by building underpasses and creating safe crossing points for wildlife.

Araya-Gamboa works to reverse this deadly trend, sharing data on hit-and-run hotspots so mitigation measures can be built, such as highway underpasses, culvert retrofits, and even tree crossings for wildlife.

They start their work around 5:30 am, put on safety gear and gather on the route they are monitoring.

“We inspect the road by car at the points where the roads reach a speed limit of 30 km/h. When the roads are dangerous, the highway police officers keep an eye on us, especially at night, since we also carry out surveillance at night,” Araya-Gamboa explains to Treehugger.

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“When we see injured or dead wild animals, we help them cross the roads safely or remove the carcasses of wild animals from the road. Finding wild animals still alive and suffering is extremely difficult.”

For each animal they find, they write down the species, the GPS location where it was found, and what type of land use it has next to the road. They also photograph each one.

“Rain always hampers our surveys and increases the number of accidents,” says Araya-Gamboa. “In a survey, we counted up to 60 crashes in 45 km [28 miles].”

Team members checking an illegal road in Costa Rica.


Road growth and wildlife

More than 25 million kilometers (15.5 million miles) of new roads are expected to be built worldwide by 2050. Around 90% of those roads will be built in countries with rich ecosystems and biodiversity.

The road project in Costa Rica could be used as a model for other places where road growth affects wildlife.

“We cannot continue counting deaths; steps should be taken to mitigate this problem. That is the objective of this project: conservation action”, says Araya-Gamboa.

“In 2015, in collaboration with the Costa Rican government, academia, and other NGOs, we developed a nationwide roadkill mitigation guide that the Ministry of Transportation is now using to incorporate environmental protections into new infrastructure development projects.”

The project is helping, but much more needs to be accomplished, she says.

“Across the country, we still need to ensure the implementation of wildlife protection measures on existing roads, including rural roads neighboring Protected Areas,” he says. “To this day, the country still lacks official and specific legislation that requires the implementation of environmental measures on existing roads for wildlife.”

Araya-Gamboa is part of a team of 10 women who have been working together for a decade to help create more wildlife-friendly roads in Costa Rica.

“Teamwork is crucial to the success of our work!” she says. “This job requires finding people truly committed to this mission.”