Roaming animals and road safety: understanding a South African normality

by Elejha-Ze Gengan

The torch barely displaced the red gunk clinging to the bumper. She adjusted it, her hands shaking. The car was a mess, bonnet crumpled, lights smashed. Just an animal, appearing out of the shadows. Everything happened so fast as if it was merely a trick of the night.

Your muscles slowly tensing up, the release of cortisol and adrenaline causing your heart rate to increase. A rush of thoughts as panic slowly starts taking over your body. You feel yourself becoming heavier, it’s as if you’re being entrapped within your own body.

Panic and fear is an unavoidable facet of the human experience.

In South Africa, approximately one million road accidents are reported annually. The majority of these are caused by human and environmental factors. On a daily basis, an average of over 40 individuals are reported fatally injured and 20 are left permanently disabled.

The study also reveals that South African road deaths can be seen as a national crisis with an average of 134 000 deaths over the span of a decade. Recent statistics show that the number of fatalities caused by road accidents in 2019 was 1 390, with animal-vehicle collisions causing twenty percent of them and placing human safety at risk.

However, people are a risk to them too. Thousands of animals face death on a daily basis. A recent study suggests that the number of animals killed by vehicles could be much more than generally reported or understood. Roads in particular have numerous impacts on our ecosystem. Some being direct, such as fatal collisions. On the other side of the spectrum, it indirectly contributes to the changing and fragmenting animal habitats.

Millions of animal deaths on roads are reported annually, with the resulting carcasses merely representing a substantial amount of food for scavengers. Although the role of scavengers acts as a valuable ecosystem service, it leads researchers to underestimate the impact of roads on animal lives. The removal of animal corpses by scavengers could mean that the actual number of road deaths is six times more than that observed during surveys.

[ABOVE: I didn’t swerve to crush it on the road. I didn’t round the block and try again. I remember vividly: it lying on its back in the middle of the road, legs flailing, writing in pain. I should have killed him, instead, I left him suffering and I cannot forget.”-Harry Demarest, ENTITLED REGRETS. [1] ]

Many have wondered why certain animals turn into statues in the middle of the road. The classic deer-in-the-headlights moment whilst you drive straight towards them. In no way does it demean their intelligence. This is often caused by them being crepuscular or nocturnal; their vision is completely different to that of humans. This is due to them being active mainly within an hour or so of either dawn or dusk, or at night.

Their pupils fully dilate, capturing as much light as possible, optimizing their vision in low light conditions. This means that when a light is shone into their eyes, they become temporarily blinded resulting in them remaining in a fixed position until their eyes adjust. Sadly this takes much longer than the time required or needed in order to stop your vehicle and avoid a collision.

Due to their size, hooves and perhaps horns. They pose a great danger to vehicle occupants and pedestrians in the surrounding area. If hit, they can roll onto the bonnet and into the windshield or roof, resulting in extensive vehicle damage, and serious or fatal injury to any individual in the surrounding area.

From family pets, valuable livestock, and a myriad of species of wildlife - each sentient being meeting its fate through a tragic impact with a moving vehicle. Road accidents that result in death are accountable for the untold suffering of families, friends, and loved ones left behind.

It has a costly effect on the economy which the government conservatively estimates to be around R166-billion annually. The Endangered Wildlife Trust's Wildlife and Transport Programme (EWT-WTP) revealed that the insurance industry pays out claims in the region of R82.5-million each year for wildlife-vehicle-collisions (WVCs) alone.

Many vehicle insurance claims have reported that accidents were caused by animals. South African road signs warn motorists against a range of animals such as tortoises and ostriches. However, it has been noted that the more well-known species such as cattle are most frequently the cause. In some cases, these animals belong to no-one and aren’t fenced in.

For insurance claims, nothing can be done if this is the case. If the animal does belong to someone, often including dogs, sheep, horses, donkeys, mules, goats, cows and sheep, you as the owner of these animals will be held legally liable for the fixing of the vehicle involved in the collision. However, the driver or individual involved in the collision will be liable for the vet treatment bills if it is found to be their fault, for example, if they were recklessly driving.

Livestock owners are responsible for damages since the animals should not be on the roadway. Many citizens are unaware of this fact and the legal system behind it. According to bylaw people are not allowed to turn loose or allow to wander in any street or public place, any horse, cattle, donkey, and animal. When these animals are found they may be impounded.

The municipality encourages people to report all roaming livestock as it transgresses the said bylaws of which the country has established. Anyone who contravenes or fails to comply may be held guilty of an offense and liable on conviction to pay a fine.

It is rather concerning that cattle roam around the roads during the day and night, sometimes in harsh weather conditions, unattended and actively posing as a danger to not only themselves but to those in cars and motorcycles.

The African Farmers Association Of South Africa(AFASA), which aims to commercialize the developing agriculture sector, suggests that many individuals are left in the dark as roaming animals isn’t necessarily a topic broadly discussed as it is rather normalized.

It also leads to ongoing issues such as livestock theft across all provinces. It is worrying and rather disheartening to see animals on the streets. Most aren’t even branded which makes it even more difficult to link them to their rightful owners. Leaving only one option which is to have them impounded.

Ensuring their safety is often overlooked.

This can be changed.

Below are a few helpful articles:

You might also be interested in: Handbook to reduce wildlife road kills

As a community, let’s avoid panic and fear by giving wildlife a break.

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