Traffic road sign aimed at saving endangered moose

Photo: Eva Rajlichová

Drivers on Czech roads may soon come across a new, perhaps somewhat surprising, traffic sign: a moose crossing. The non-profit organisation Česká Krajina or Czech Landscape has proposed that the road management authorities place the traffic signs in regions where an encounter with these rare animals is most likely to happen. I spoke to Miloslav Jirků of the Czech Academy of Sciences, who is one of the people behind the initiative:

Photo: Eva Rajlichová
“We proposed the sign as a warning to Czech drivers that there is actually a very unusual and large animal living with us and crossing our roads: the moose. It is actually the rarest, big animal living in the Czech Republic.

“Avoiding collisions with cars and trains which occur quite regularly might significantly improve the situation of the moose population in the Czech Republic by lowering losses because most collisions with cars are fatal for the moose.”

What is the likelihood of a traffic accident involving a moose in the Czech Republic?

“It depends when and where. In most parts of the country it is quite unlikely. It is more likely in particular regions in the southwest of the country, along the borders with Austria and with German Bavaria, especially in the region of the Šumava mountains in the very south and around the towns of Jindřichův Hradec and Český Krumlov.”

I think many people would find the traffic sign really surprising because they have no idea that there are moose living in this country. Have they always lived here?

“It is true that for many people it will be rather surprising to see the sign because even in the regions where moose have occurred regularly for the past 50 years it is still very rare and very unusual to even spot the animal.

“Moose lived in the region currently occupied by the Czech Republic until the late Middle Ages, until the 15th or 16th century, when it was driven to extinction, most probably by over-hunting.

“But then after a long period of absence it started to return spontaneously, without any human intervention. The first animals started to migrate from south Poland towards the Czech Republic and the migrations continued until around the year 2000 when it suddenly stopped.

“We proposed the sign as a warning to Czech drivers that there is actually a very unusual and large animal living with us and crossing our roads: the moose.”

“This is probably related to the construction of a highway connecting Berlin with Wroclav, Krakow and Ukraine. The highway is actually passing along the southern border of the moose range in Poland and so the Polish and Czech populations became isolated from each other.

“What is amazing is that most of these migrating moose ended up in the region of southern Bohemia in the Šumava mountains, where the first population was established in the 1970s.”

Is it because of the local landscape? What kind of landscape do these animals prefer?

“The landscape preferences differ quite markedly from region to region. For instance in Poland, Ukraine and Russia, they usually inhabit flat lowlands with marshes and swamps and alluvial forests.

“But here, as I said, they are concentrated the Šumava mountains, in a countryside that is rather hilly and quite forested. But what is more important for moose is that it is an area with very low human presence with lots of bushes to browse.”

And what is the likelihood of an encounter with a moose?

“It’s possible to say that most encounters with moose happen on the road. Car drivers encounter them most often and often with fatal consequences, especially for the moose.”

How many of these road accidents have you actually registered in recent years?

Eurasian elk | Photo: Dave Bezaire and Susi Havens-Bezaire,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 2.0
“According to official statistics, there were seven accidents since the 1970s, two of them on the railway and five of them on the road, and all of them took place in southern Bohemia. And in the last decade we have registered another five cases.”

So how large is actually the moose population in the Czech Republic nowadays?

“For this we have only a very rough approximation. The population was at its peak in the 1980’s and 1990’s when there were between 30 and 50 animals, which is already quiet a prospering population but after the fall in the past 20 years, we believe there is at the best something between 20 and 30 animals.”

You said their numbers have been dropping. Does that mean that they actually don’t breed on the territory of the Czech Republic?

“What I wanted to say is that their migrations from Poland most probably stopped completely by the year 2000. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t breed. They breed regularly and there is a lot of evidence for that. The most significant indicator is that most moose that died on the roads over the past years were young animals of two or three years looking for new territories.”

So how come that their numbers are still going down?

“First of all, the migration from Poland stopped, and second, there are losses cause by car or train accidents and third is shooting or culling of moose.

“There are two ways how moose are shot. Either by poachers, which is hard to monitor, but there is also legal culling of moose in Austria and Bavaria, because local authorities there permit it in case the moose cause damage to agricultural crops and planted forests. To improve the situation we need to communicate with the German and Austrian authorities.”

Apart from designing the traffic sign what else is being done in the Czech Republic to protect the endangered moose?

“In the Czech Republic moose are concentrated the Šumava mountains, in a countryside that is rather hilly and quite forested.”

“First we made a review of all records of moose in the Czech Republic to have a general picture of their occurrence in time and space and we also started a pilot monitoring project using camera traps, but that proved rather inefficient because moose, unlike other game species, don’t tend to use regular paths. They move through the same place using different trails.

“We are currently testing a different way of monitoring the moose. We started quite an unusual collection of moose samples and for that we are using a great tit, a small and very common bird, which has a very special skill: it is able to collect hair of wild animals around its nest.

“So we started to collect the birds’ empty nests in certain localities and they are now being genetically analysed. So we shall see in a few months what comes out of it.”