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Englefield is still disturbed by the night he hit and killed a possum while driving out to collect a wombat joey orphaned on the same road. “I was coming around a bend and, suddenly, there was a little group of them in the middle of the road. I swerved, but one ran the wrong way. That really upset me. I’d saved one animal, but I killed another.”

Eventually, he believes animals will evolve to avoid roads. “Enough injured ones will survive to make that connection between the sound and the smell and the sight of the car, but we haven’t given them enough time. And right now they can’t cope with this new predator that seems to come from nowhere.”

An echidna on the racetrack forced the 2021 Bathurst motor race to a crawl until the surprise late entry could be safely removed.

An echidna on the racetrack forced the 2021 Bathurst motor race to a crawl until the surprise late entry could be safely removed.

People assume that when lots of a species are killed on the road, it’s a sign the animals are abundant in the area. It can be, but not always, says Jones, pointing to the case of a 1991 road upgrade in Cradle Mountain, Tasmania that became “a wake-up call” for researchers.

“It went from being this little, windy road to something sealed that people were driving 100km/h on and, within a year, the eastern quolls in that area had been exterminated – every last one of them hit on the road. It’s one of the only cases in the world where traffic caused the local extinction of a species.”

In Australia, koalas, devils, quolls and cassowaries are now particularly threatened by roads. For the devils, it’s the biggest cause of death apart from the facial tumour that’s been decimating their population, says Englefield, who has twice won Tasmania’s Australian of the Year Award for his efforts to rescue devil populations. “They’re black, so you can’t see them on the road. And, for some species, like devils, if they’re bred in captivity, and get too used to humans and cars, they’re more likely to get hit when they go into the wild.”

Fences are the biggest driver of animal adaptation on the roads. If a road is fenced off, animals will look for alternatives (or cross where it ends). “Already there are pipes underneath for the water to drain that lots of animals use,” Jones says. “No one gave them permission.” Animals also tend to cross in certain places – near water sources or good vegetation. “That means you can identify little hotspots and fence them off so the animals will instead use a crossing you design nearby.”

How do you design an animal crossing?

In the 1970s, about 10 per cent of Florida’s dwindling mountain lion population was being killed on roads every year. “That meant in 10 years, they were gone,” Jones says. With just 20 animals left, wildlife crossings were swiftly built, including widening water underpasses to allow the animals to cross beneath. The “Florida panther” began to rebound.

In parts of Mexico, similar underpasses now shield jaguars from traffic. On Christmas Island, special bridges have been built over roads to allow millions of red crabs to scuttle along from the forest to the beach on their annual migration. Poles and rope bridges help possums and gliders find their way over some major Australian highways, including the Hume. And when the Great Alpine Road divided the local population of endangered pygmy possums in Victoria’s high country, the creation of special “love tunnels” beneath helped them reunite without being picked off by cars or predators.

A wallaby, a koala and a possum use a ledge installed in a drain to cross beneath Compton Road in Queensland.

A wallaby, a koala and a possum use a ledge installed in a drain to cross beneath Compton Road in Queensland.

“All these crossing structures work brilliantly, the animals are waiting to use them,” says Jones. But deciding what to build for a certain species can be tricky – and it doesn’t always go to plan. “Some just wouldn’t ever go into a dark concrete tunnel, but they’ll have no qualms using a ledge or a rope bridge,” Jones says.

In south-east Queensland, where koalas figure prominently in the road toll, the animals avoid the water tunnels because “they don’t like to get their paws wet”. “When it was suggested we put in a little ledge to let them use the existing tunnels without getting wet, I said, ‘That’s ridiculous, there’s no way a koala’s going to use a tunnel’,” Jones says.

At Compton Road, a ledge went in at minimal cost and, within three weeks, the koalas were using it. “Now there are thousands of those things around Australia and they work. There are even kangaroo-sized tunnels.”

The “smart mammal bridge” over Compton Road, Queensland.

The “smart mammal bridge” over Compton Road, Queensland.Credit:Darryl Jones

The wildlife crossing that Jones helped design at Compton Road in 2005 has now become a “display home” of sorts, featuring not just an overpass and underground tunnels but glider poles and rope bridges. “And there’s cameras everywhere,” Jones says. “It’s one of the most closely studied stretches of road in the world.”

Overpasses tend to work best of all as they continue the habitat directly over the road. At Compton, “five generations later, there’s bandicoots and koalas and wallabies going over that don’t even realise they’re walking across a busy road.” Until the bridge was built, Jones says, people dismissed such projects as “Scandinavian” feats of fancy that wouldn’t work in Australia.

Fears that overpasses might become handy hunting grounds for feral cats and foxes to lie in wait for native prey haven’t been realised when the bridges were monitored, Jones says. Still, the overpasses remain both expensive and tricky to build. “You can’t put them in just anywhere.”

Tips to keep wildlife safe on the roads

  • Avoid driving at dawn and dusk and on country roads late at night.
  • Keep a box or basket and a blanket in the car that you could use to transport an injured animal.
  • Have your state’s wildlife service phone number handy (Wildlife Victoria: 8400 7300).
  • Slow down in wildlife zones. Watch for animal eye shine at night. If you see an animal near the road, slow down and prepare to brake.
  • If you see a dead animal or you hit one, pull over if safe to do so and call the local rescue service. Check for juvenile animals nearby.
  • If it’s a kangaroo or a wombat, check for a pouch but don’t rip out a joey if inside. They may still be attached to their mother’s teat. Wildlife services can talk you through a safe pouch check.
  • Be careful around large kangaroos and do not touch bats.

Australia has nine so far. Countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands have hundreds. While nations in the EU must comply with certain standards for “fauna sensitive design” when building roads, there is no such legislation in Australia.

But Jones says states are increasingly taking it seriously. He hopes to see a new “arms race” kick off as they back more innovative projects. So far, Queensland is in front, home to six of Australia’s nine overpasses. (The other three are in northern NSW.) A world-first bridge specifically for the endangered cassowary is also under construction up north.

A koala using an underpass crossing in Queensland.

A koala using an underpass crossing in Queensland.Credit:Darryl Jones

Can we scare animals away from the road?

If you can’t put in fences, “virtual fences” (sensor units to detect and then frighten away wildlife near the road) have worked in Europe and the Netherlands. But, while the flashing lights and high-frequency buzzing sound they emit might be enough to scare off deer and moose, research suggests it doesn’t work on the often carnivorous animals that Australian and North American roads attract.

“The cicada and the frogs are louder than some of those units,” says Englefield. “I’ve found animals dead on the road right next to them.”

“The sound of a bushfire, that crack, all animals know to flee from that.”

Englefield himself got a crash-course in how Australian wildlife flee danger in 2007 when a bushfire jumped a road and roared all the way up to the fence of his wildlife park in Tasmania (but, miraculously, no further). “The roos ran for the back fence to escape, the wombats and the devils went down burrows, the koalas climbed to the very tops of the trees,” he says. “But the sound of a bushfire, that crack, all animals know to flee from that.”

It’s quite close to a bullwhip crack, a sound he wants trialled at high volume in sensor fences. If Englefield had his way, he’d be beefing up technology in hotspots with heat sensors and drones too – to find animals with greater precision and “then drop smoke bombs and harmless things that will actually frighten them away. If nothing happens, they won’t learn.”

Whoever does find an effective, scalable solution stands to make millions of dollars, Jones says. “Everyone will want it, so there’s a massive amount of research being done,” he says.

But, too often, he says, governments and councils spend money instead on unproven fixes, such as sensor fences. “It makes it seem like they’re doing something.”

Could we change driver behaviour?

Humans cause roadkill, not animals, Englefield stresses. “People say, ‘Oh, this stupid animal ran in front of me.’ There’s nothing stupid about the animal.”

Animal behaviour is harder to change, as thousands of years of instinct collide with new human-imposed rules of survival, but research shows interventions focused on changing driver behaviour actually have less success.

“Nobody takes the slightest notice of signs. The famous ‘kangaroo, slow down’ sign doesn’t work.”

“Nobody takes the slightest notice of signs,” Jones says. “The famous ‘kangaroo, slow down’ sign doesn’t work.” Herders in Finland even tried spraying their reindeers’ antlers with reflective paint to warn drivers in the dark, but that didn’t work either.

In Australia, at least, Englefield’s early research suggests most roadkill is caused by locals, not tourists. When Tasmania sealed its borders last year as the pandemic hit, Englefield was halfway through a research project on a roadkill hotspot, Bruny Island. Suddenly, he had a perfect way to test his hypothesis. Visitors to the island stopped coming. But the roadkill didn’t decrease.

A sign in Mission Beach in Queensland warns motorists of the presence of cassowaries.

A sign in Mission Beach in Queensland warns motorists of the presence of cassowaries.

Research has found some people will deliberately swerve to hit animals too. “You’ll see the tyre tracks on the road,” says Palma. Englefield has heard of drivers even running down fairy penguins. And buried in the traffic archives of the NSW government is footage from 2017 of a truck driver ignoring flashing emergency signs in a freeway tunnel and moving into a lane where a koala was trapped, mowing the animal down before rescuers could arrive.

“‘This is your licence plate, we know how fast you’re going and there’s a koala crossing just ahead.’”

Still, for the most part, roadkill is accidental. People are speeding, or driving in low light, or not paying attention. “In Australia, we have such long distances, we’re completely out of it a lot of time,” Jones says. “Speed is the big factor. And driving at night.”

The threat of punishment can move the dial. Englefield has seen people slow down just because they heard a roadkill study was monitoring traffic. And Jones is already seeing promising results from a new generation of smart signs that track how fast a car is going and warn about upcoming wildlife zones. “The really good ones even clock your licence plate, so they’ll say, ‘This is your licence plate, we know how fast you’re going and there’s a koala crossing just ahead’.”

Other systems being tested track tagged animals in an area and relay warnings to drivers when one is approaching the road, in real time. “That’s very exciting, but you need tags on most of the local animals to do it,” says Jones. “We’re testing it now with koalas in Queensland.”

Endangered flying fox pups are cared for around the clock until they can be released into the wild as colonies.

Endangered flying fox pups are cared for around the clock until they can be released into the wild as colonies. Credit:Eddie Jim

Ideally, experts say, you’d fence off as much road as possible and install some well-positioned animal crossings, from overpasses to tunnels and rope bridges. If nothing else, some traffic-calming measures and warnings ahead of a hotspot can help act as a “pedestrian crossing” for wildlife. All this needs government buy-in.

Roadkill is a problem getting worse, not better, Englefield says. Aside from the cost of roadkill in lives and property, in places such as Tasmania, where it is especially visible, it can cost tourism dollars too. Englefield and Jones both say insurance companies could be investing more in solutions – in an effort to help their own bottom lines. ”And we need better data, you need evidence it’s a problem in an area,” Englefield says. “Whole species could be in trouble, and we might not know.”

In 2019, Englefield, then 76, set up Australia’s first citizen roadkill reporting app, allowing people to log photos of roadkill, to better identify hotspots and test interventions. In that first month of launching the “Roadkill Reporter”, he pored through more than 2000 photos of dead animals. “After all these years, I thought I was pretty hardened to it, but I ended up having to get counselling.”

“It’s not unusual for them to turn back and look at you too as they go off.”

Still, he says that’s nothing compared to the toll on volunteer wildlife rescuers, many of whom he has surveyed in his research. “They’re not the council. They’re people doing it on their own dime, going out in the dead of night, getting up around the clock to feed orphans. They’re mostly older. What happens when they burn out?”

With Paddy the orphaned joey on her lap, a lone survivor of a recent car crash, Palma agrees Australia’s fragile wildlife rescue apparatus could itself be endangered without more support. But she hasn’t been able to stop doing it herself since she started, not in her former life as a top banking executive, and not now as CEO of Wildlife Victoria, where she is notorious for fitting meetings around rescues.

“The best thing in the world is taking a compromised animal and getting it back in the wild,” she says, as a flying fox pup inches up her back, unnoticed, to find a higher launching pad for his indoor flying practice. “It’s not unusual for them to turn back and look at you too as they go off.”

But, she sighs, there’s always more orphans to take their place.

More orphans, and less wild.

Animal rescuer Manfred Zabinskas with a kangaroo at his rescue shelter and home in rural Victoria.

Animal rescuer Manfred Zabinskas with a kangaroo at his rescue shelter and home in rural Victoria.Credit:Eddie Jim

Source : https://www.smh.com.au/national/the-horrible-thud-what-can-we-do-to-reduce-roadkill-20211103-p595t5.html

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