Crossing the Road Between Conservation and Tragedy

By Daniela Araya
Wild Cats Friendly Roads Project Coordinator

Oncilla using culvert

On Costa Rican highways, researchers estimate that four animals die every hour. 

It was a dark night as our car slowly cruised along the highway. In the trees on either side of the vehicle, untold wildlife roamed, peering out through the dark at us. They stared as our headlights stared as we moved further and further along the road. 

The black, foreboding darkness could not stop me from pursuing my conservation work. I was scouring the moonlit roads in search of something — wildlife on the road, dead or alive, to be exact. Our car zoomed on a little more, revealing a sad sight. My colleague and I jumped out of the car — lying on the side of the road was a deceased juvenile ocelot, struck by a car passing down that very road.

ocelot and mother

A Dangerous Collision Course for Cats

As the coordinator for Panthera’s Wild Cats Friendly Roads project, this sight is all too familiar. Highways and cars present a serious threat to wild cats and all wildlife around the world. While many of the carnivores most threatened by vehicles live in Asia, the six wild cats of Costa Rica — jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis, margays and oncillas — are all in grave danger of being struck by a vehicle, something that could easily end their promising lives and affect their populations. 

The numbers are heartbreaking: more than 500 wild cats in Costa Rica were struck by vehicles between 2012 and 2022 (per data gathered by Panthera and Las Pumas Rescue Center). Of these cats, only a small number of cats have been found alive and have been able to be rehabilitated. Unfortunately, the vast majority cannot be saved. This does not even take into account the many thousands of animal species killed by cars in the last ten years.

Ocelots killed in Costa Rica, 2020
Ocelots killed on costa rican highways, 2020.

How to Save Costa Rica's Ocelots

In Costa Rica, a country crucial to wildlife conservation, how do we reconcile with this? While significant work has been put into conservation, this country also has a high volume of roads (more than 44, 316 km of them). A solution must be derived to ensure wildlife can exist with these highways and the vehicles that travel on them. This is where Panthera's Wild Cats Friendly Roads Project comes into the picture. 

As part of the project, I scour Costa Rica’s highways for roadkill along with a dedicated team compromised of all women representing the government and NGOs, charting where and which animals have been struck — be it a snake, monkey, wild cat or frog. I gather input from community members and carefully document the results, noting both the dire need to protect the species killed and the subsequent information needed to ensure nuanced conservation action.

Turtle in shell on Costa Rican highway.
Turtle in shell on Costa Rican highway.

Along with NGOs like Vías Amigables con la Vida Silvestre Group, this information helps government agencies know where to construct solutions to the roadkill problem. These data have led to the recommendation of wildlife underpasses for larger animals and arboreal crossings, a favorite passageway for capuchin and howler monkeys. Thanks to this teamwork, the government has built 40 underpasses for wildlife and installed many wildlife crossing signs. Day by day, Panthera and our collaborators are getting closer to mobilizing change for the wildlife struck on Costa Rica’s roads.

Monkeys plan to use a bridge.

The Road Forward

As I look at this young ocelot on the side of the road, however, my heart sinks. I know that this ocelot would have been an important part of its population, a young individual with so much to add to its ecosystem. But seeing it also gives me renewed strength. Every time I am face-to-face with a wild cat tragically killed by a vehicle collision, I am reminded why I am working to save wild cats. And while that ocelot is gone, I know that there will be change, whether in the form of underpasses or wildlife crossing signs, that will be built due to its death and the thousands of other animals who perish on the sides of Costa Rica’s roads.

Learn more about our work in Costa Rica.