From Roadkills to Climate, Can Humans Ever Think Beyond Themselves?
A study identified four exotic animal populations that might go extinct if the current levels of roadkill persist.
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‘Roadkill’: the dictionary meaning is “animals, reptiles and birds killed by vehicles on a road”. The slang version alludes to “someone who has failed”. The truth, however, is far more disturbing than these two meanings.
I must confess that after I started travelling again this year – following almost three years of confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic – I turned even more conscious of roadkill than I was in the past, though a roadkill has always been a sad, disturbing sight for me. This year, I have driven on highways in the US and France and seen the carcasses of various animals, including deer, otters, and something like a small bear.
A recent study identified four exotic animal populations that might be extinct within 50 years if the current levels of roadkill persist.
In Denmark, I regularly come across dead hedgehogs, foxes and rodents littering the sides of roads, especially motorways and highways. In India, it is usually stray dogs, lizards or cats, and, of course, birds.
The hidden – and devastating – significance of roadkill is this: these are animals, reptiles and birds killed just because they got in our way.
Roadkill just happens. And it just happens because that is the way human beings live.
We are the only species whose ordinary lifestyles involve the needless and careless destruction of other species.
Human Life Has Become a Threat to Other Species
In Denmark, I regularly come across dead hedgehogs, foxes and rodents littering the sides of roads, especially motorways and highways. In India, it is usually stray dogs, lizards or cats, and, of course, birds, but that is not because we drive better in India: it is because we have driven our wildlife further away from our inhabited areas. It is seldom that we encounter a deer by a semi-urban road in India, something that happens often in parts of the US, Canada, France and Denmark. The pressure of humanity is already far heavier on other species in over-populated, developing countries such as India. But that is exactly what the hidden – and devastating – significance of roadkill is: these are animals, reptiles and birds killed just because they got in our way.
Lots of animals kill other animals for food. Some people have argued that human beings are the only animals who kill for pleasure; for instance, hunting and fishing as sports. Others have argued that domestic cats seem to do so too: they often toy with small birds or mice and kill them without eating them. But this, it can be argued, is because they have evolved to hunt for food and still tend to hunt instinctively, even after getting their hunger satiated with food doled out from cartons. Whatever the case, most people would agree that it is seldom that other animals kill unless they feel threatened or they are hungry. It is something that animals know, too. Hence, you can see a herd of deer in closer proximity to a pride of lions once the latter has fed well on a prey.
Roadkill 'Just Happens'
But even this argument – whether human beings are not the only animals that kill for pleasure, for fun – is redundant in the case of roadkill. Because roadkill has as little to do with the human desire for pleasure and fun as it has to do with human hunger.
Roadkill is worse than both options. Roadkill just happens. And it just happens because that is the way human beings live.
I am not talking about the more exotic victims of our rush to get from one point to another. There are those, too, of course. A recent study in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography identified four exotic animal populations that might be extinct within 50 years if the current levels of roadkill persist. These are the leopard panthera pardus in North India, the maned wolf in Brazil, the little spotted cat in Brazil, and the brown hyena of Southern Africa.
But I am not even talking of such endangered species; I am talking of ordinary species, even those unlikely to become extinct, such as hedgehogs, foxes, moles, seagulls and crows. It is not the kind of species killed that disturbs me – though this could be a matter for worry from other necessary perspectives. I am disturbed by the very fact of the relentless, remorseless ‘massacre’ that happens daily on roads traversed by human beings.
Are We Simply Unsustainable?
Of course, steps can – and should – be taken to reduce the carnage. For instance, research is going on to develop software that will highlight road stretches where species are more vulnerable to vehicle deaths, and such software can be used to develop better road planning. But this and similar steps are just practical and limited inferences from the facts.
What still remains unaddressed is the larger matter: we are the only species whose ordinary lifestyles involve the needless and careless destruction of other species. We cause deaths not because we have to (hunger) or because we want to (pleasure). We cause death because of the way we live.
That is what I mean by the hidden meaning of roadkill, and it is a thoroughly disturbing one. What kind of species blindly kills other beings in the process of moving from one spot to another? Even herds of elephants or buffaloes do not do so when they traverse vast stretches, unless they stampede in panic.
There is something very disturbing about a species that kills, unintentionally, in the ordinary process of living, and, usually, does not even notice it. If we were to notice the horror of roadkill that we inflict on earth every second, we would have to ask ourselves whether from the global perspective, it does not suggest that as a species we, the homo-sapiens, are simply unsustainable. No wonder we do not think about the dead animals, birds and reptiles littering the sides of our roads. To think deeply about roadkill would be to stare into the face of our own blithe, innocent, mundane monstrosity. The slang meaning of roadkill – “someone who has failed” – is inversely true. That ‘someone’ who has failed is us, not the roadkill.
(Tabish Khair, is PhD, DPhil, Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. He tweets @KhairTabish. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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