Scientists Are Scouring Costa Rican Roads to Help Save Wild Cats

461 wild cats were killed on Costa Rica roads since 2011.

Daniela Araya-Gamboa along a roadway in Costa Rica
Daniela Araya-Gamboa along a roadway in Costa Rica.


Early in the morning and sometimes late in the evening, Daniela Araya-Gamboa slips on a reflective vest and walks along highways in Costa Rica. The researcher looks for wildlife that weren’t able to successfully navigate the roads.

Araya-Gamboa is a coordinator for Panthera's Wild Cats Friendly Roads Project in Costa Rica. Panthera is a global organization dedicated to conserving the world’s wild cats and their ecosystems.

Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It is believed to be home to about half a million animal and plant species.

It also has more than 44,316 kilometers (27,500 miles) of roads which, according to Panthera, is the highest density in Central America. All those thoroughfares are a threat to the country’s wildlife. They cause fragmentation of their habitat and result in accidents between vehicles and animals.

Over the past decade, 481 wild cats have been killed on roads in Costa Rica.

Araya-Gamboa’s project focuses on saving more wild cats (like jaguars, pumas, margays, jaguarundis, ocelots, and oncillas) by lowering the threats to their survival. She and her team track areas where roadkill often happens so that they can limit the issues by building underpasses and creating safe crossing spots for wildlife.

Araya-Gamboa works to reverse this deadly trend, sharing data on roadkill hotspots so that mitigation measures, like road underpasses, retrofitting of culverts, and even arboreal crossings for wildlife can be built.

They start their work around 5:30 a.m., donning safety gear and meeting at the route they are monitoring.

“We survey the road by car at points when roadways reach a speed limit of 30 kmph. When the roads are dangerous, road police officers guard us, mostly at night as we also conduct monitoring in the evenings,” Araya-Gamboa tells Treehugger.

“Upon seeing injured or deceased wildlife, we either help them cross roadways safely or move the wildlife corpses from the road. Finding wild animals still alive and suffering is extremely difficult.”

For each animal they find, they note the species, the GPS location where it was found, and what kind of land use is next to the roadway. They also photograph each one.

“Rain always makes our surveys more difficult and increases the number of roadkills,” Araya-Gamboa says. “In one survey, we counted up to 60 roadkills across 45 km [28 miles].”

Team members checking an illegal road in Costa Rica
Team members checking an illegal road in Costa Rica.


Highway Growth and Wildlife

More than 25 million kilometers (15.5 million miles) of new roads are expected to be constructed around the world by 2050. About 90% of those roads will be built in nations with rich ecosystems and biodiversity.

The roads project in Costa Rica could be used as a model for other places where highway growth affects wildlife.

“We cannot continue to count the dead; action to mitigate this issue must be taken. That is the objective of this project: conservation action,” Araya-Gamboa says. 

“In 2015, in collaboration with the Costa Rican government, academia, and other NGOs, we developed a countrywide roadkill mitigation guide that the Ministry of Transportation is now utilizing to incorporate environmental protections in new infrastructure development projects.”

The project is helping, but much more needs to be accomplished, she says.

“Throughout the country, we still very much need to ensure the implementation of wildlife protection measures on existing roads, including on rural roads neighboring Protected Areas,” she says. “To this day, the country still lacks official and specific legislation requiring the implementation of environmental measures on existing roads for wildlife.”

Araya-Gamboa is part of a team of 10 women who have been working together for a decade to help create more wildlife-friendly roads in Costa Rica.

“Teamwork is crucial to the success of our work!” she says. “This work requires finding people truly committed to this mission.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Our Mission." Panthera.

  2. "Costa Rica: Paradise on Earth." Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

  3. Panthera news release

  4. Daniela Araya-Gamboa, coordinator for Panthera's Wild Cats Friendly Roads Project in Costa Rica

  5. Quintana, Itxaso, et al. "Severe Conservation Risks of Roads On Apex Predators." Scientific Reports, vol. 12, no. 1, 2022, doi:10.1038/s41598-022-05294-9