Image for Riding the Devil’s Highway

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Friend of creatures great and small: Don Knowler ... and mates ...

Sometimes I think the world has gone mad, and my research into roadkill for my soon to be launched book, Riding the Devil’s Highway, more or less confirms this view.

Forget the irony surrounding wild and beautiful Tasmania being dubbed the “roadkill capital of the world”, in northern Finland the authorities there daub reindeer in glow-in-the-dark paint to prevent them being hit by lead-footed motorists.

I was contemplating this bizarre fact last week, while in the roadkill-free zone of an exercise bike in my local gym, when an item concerning roadkill in the north-eastern United States came on the television news.

A fashion designer in Boston had managed to beat her clients’ politically-correct ban on using fur in fashion. She simply drove the highways of rural Massachusetts at dawn looking for roadkill, especially commonly killed raccoons which provided wonderful fur for collars.

My book, of course, is not just about roadkill fashion, or the food they serve at the Roadkill Café along Route 66 in the United States (even if I do have a reference to a roadkill bra, made from a dead possum in New Zealand).

All the same, I do have an unhealthy interest in what lies squashed on the road, and I blame it in part on an invitation I received many years ago to take part in a roadkill research project. It contained an unusual request – could I obtain a supply of leopard urine?

Working as a young reporter covering the United Nations in New York in the 1980s, I had been contacted by Canadian researchers trying to develop a repellent to deter moose from sheltering in railway tunnels and highway cuttings during the harsh Canadian winter.

My name had come up because I had previously worked in southern Africa and I had frequently written about wildlife, including big cats, in both national parks and in breeding programs in zoos and private sanctuaries.

This project was very much hands-off on my part with me merely providing a list of contacts to the researchers but it got me thinking about not just moose but all the other creatures I had seen dead on the roads of North America, and on the highways of my native Britain. 

When I came to live in Tasmania 15 years ago I was surprised to discover that I had not only arrived in a “clean and green” wildlife paradise but I was also in “the roadkill capital of the world”.

I soon learned groundbreaking research conducted by Alistair Hobday and Melinda Minstrell revealed the animal and bird toll on Tasmanian roads was the highest on roads anywhere else on the planet, with one animal killed every three kilometres on average. Or, as a contributor to the Mercury letters page described a Tasmanian journey: it was like “crossing a bloody carpet”.

The Mercury letters page reflects concern about roadkill on virtually a weekly basis. Some of the letters are from tourists who say they will not come again. The roadkill toll is indeed collosal.

One hundred and eight thousand brushtail possums, nearly 30,000 pademelons, 15,000 wallabies, more than 3300 Tasmanian devils. At least 300,000 mammals and birds are killed on Tasmania’s roads every year. That’s an average of one animal killed every two minutes.

A website dedicated to roadkill,  http://www.roadkilltas.com,  also tells us that each Tasmanian driver can expect to kill at least one animal in a year and Against Animal Cruelty Tasmania says the toll could well reach beyond half a million animals, birds and reptiles annually.

Flattened fauna ...

About a decade ago I set out on a journey to write a book about roadkill but, as with many of my lengthy drives, I became distracted along the way.

What has sustained me on what has been a remarkable journey, though, are the people I have met along the route. There is Dr Hobday who in fact is a marine biologist by profession and has concerned himself with roadkill in what can be described as a “citizen science” project, using a mapping method - that was originally devised for counting bluefin tuna populations - to record the flattened fauna on our roads.

There’s a leading light in wildlife veterinary care, Sandy Bay veterinarian James Harris, who ran a practice in California until he discovered the beauty and natural wonders of Tasmania while being stranded here at the time of the New York World Trade Centre terrorist attack a decade ago. Dr Harris had been a delegate at a wildlife veterinary conference in Hobart at the time.

There’s Roger Billings, the “Beast of Bonorong”, who when not volunteering his services at the wildlife sanctuary is a Bridgewater bus driver. He was dubbed the “beast” in 2010 when he chose Tasmanian devils and eastern quolls as his neighbours, living in a purpose-built enclosure to publicise the fate of wildlife falling victim to the traffic on our roads.

And there’s David Joyce, a trained remedial therapist, who specialises in rehabilitating frogmouths, the latest released from his West Hobart home during a full moon.

When you spend time with these people you marvel at their commitment and selfless devotion to the creatures under their care. All costs come out of their own pockets while veterinarians also give their time, and the cost of their equipment, their staff and medicines for free.

It is clear that the efforts of all those involved in volunteer animal care take much, if not most, of the burden of dealing with the roadkill fall-out off the hands of the state government. It can be argued, in fact, that an unfair burden is falling on the shoulders of the volunteers.

The Tasmanian Government was some years back presented with a proposal to establish a 24-hour wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and education centre on the Beaumaris Zoo site. The Government denied it funding although it had the support of the Hobart City Council, the owners of the Beaumaris Zoo site which, of course, is where the last captive Tasmanian tiger died, if not the last of the species.

Beyond calls for greater government funding – and greater funding for roadkill mitigation measures on highways – there are things we can all do to reduce the toll.

We can drive slower at night – 50 per cent of roadkill occurs at speeds in excess of 80kph – and take extra care at noted hotspots where animals congregate. These have been identified and maps can be downloaded from the http://www.roadkilltas.com website.

Writing a column on bird-watching in the Mercury each week I work on the premise that everyone – whether or not they actually like birds – has a bird story to tell. Birds are our contact point with nature because they are always around us, and are so obvious. The same, ironically, can be said of roadkill.

Riding the Devils’ Highway will be launched by Nick Mooney at the Hobart Bookshop, at 5.30pm on Thursday, February 26.

• Ros Barnett, in Comments: I would not miss this for the world. Oh bugger, I’ve got a committee meeting that night. Solution: delegate. If other half comes home without a signed copy I shall turn him into a fur frisbee on the side of the road.

• R. Middleton, USA, in Comments: I always thought the old days of Van Diemen’s Land, when helpless and hopeless prisoners were treated with brutality, depravity and inhumanity, were long gone. Not true! It’s the native animals that are the new generation of “convicts” that are being punished in the true spirit of old VDL. Their crime? Simply existing. Anybody care? No! Too many of them - doesn’t mean a thing if you kill one of the silly buggers. Their punishment? To be “skittled” by angry men in 4x4s who have just had a poor “customer service” experience and have nowhere to go but are running late to get there, and don’t have time to slow down so a bloody “brushie” can live a little while longer.