As the sun sank on a cold windswept September evening, a Himalayan marmot was waddling as fast as it could across National Highway 213 in Sichuan Province, presumably to join its home colony across the busy road. It never made it. A truck sped by and smashed it.
Earlier that day, a Tibetan mastiff was crossing the same highway and met an identical untimely end, becoming roadkill after a car struck it and kept going.
They were only two of perhaps hundreds of animals - ranging from birds and frogs to yaks, wild dogs and sheep - killed daily on the 2,827 kilometer long highway that runs through Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu provinces.
In a 2009 report by artsma.com, China's first online auto sales platform, Highway 213 was listed as one of China's 10 most dangerous roads for drivers.
And according to a roadkill report conducted by World Wildlife Fund in 2007, an estimated 5,800 animals were smashed to their deaths in northern Sichuan's Ruo'ergai wetland-prairie area alone. Ruo'ergai is surrounded by three highways including Highway 213.
But there are no official statistics about how many people die or are injured in smashups with animals. Ruo'ergai is home to 40 bird species and more than 100 animal species, all defenseless against the force of vehicular horsepower.
Though China has no animal protection laws, volunteers such as Shen You, 36, and seven other members of the Chengdu Bird Watching Society are on a mission to protect both animals and humans who hit them.
That's why nearly every month, they drive about 600 kilometers from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, to Ruo'ergai to collect and record roadkill data.
They made a week long field study to Ruo'ergai in late September to count the number of wildlife passageways across roads, record speeds of vehicles and map roadkill hotspots.
Mapping the evidence
"Stop! There's another one!" Shen yelled.
He jumped from the black van, took photos and used his GPS to record a dead bird's location.
"Animals will not change their migratory routes to make way for the highway, it is just not in their genes," Shen told the Global Times.
Not long ago, it was the death of a Chinese desert cat (also known as a Chinese mountain cat) that saddened him, yet also spurred his interest in doing field studies to better understand why vehicles hit animals.
"I had been looking for a desert cat for a long time, but the first time I saw one was its smashed body on a road," he said.
"If an animal as fast and agile as a cat gets hit by vehicles, how can other animals avoid getting hit?" he asked.
On September 27 alone they recorded the bodies of five birds, two frogs, one rabbit and one dog.
"Look at the skid marks, some are as long as 20 meters," said Shen, pointing outside of the window. "You can image how the drivers react when an animal dashes out on the road."
Shen said that if animals can't be educated on how to cross safely, at least drivers can learn to drive more carefully.
"We suggest that some enforced slowdown facilities should be set at roadkill hot spots, as well as electronic message signs," he said. "And the speed limit should be reduced to 60 kilometers per hour (kph)."
"Even though vehicles are limited to a top speed of 80 kph, we have seen many divers drive over the speed limit," Liu Huili, a member of the field study group and researcher with the Green Beagle, a Beijing-based non-governmental organization that advocates popular science education, told the Global Times.
Warning signs for animal tunnel channels and slowdown zones can be seen every 4-5 kilometers along the highway in Ruo'ergai, yet they save few animals' lives because many of the animal crossing channel signs are only signs, with no tunnels.
Zuo Sen, a deputy director of forestry bureau of Ruo'ergai county, told the Global Times that they took the animals into consideration when they turned the dirt road into a highway in 2007.
"But because of the financial problems and geographical situation, we just set up warning signs for animal channels instead of building real animal passageways," he said.
In China the first animal passageway was constructed along the Qinghai-Tibet railway. In order to avoid cutting off their migratory routes, 33 wildlife passageways were built along a 2,000-kilometer-long railway.
In 2006, a research group found that more than 98 percent of 2,962 antelopes returning from Kekexili on the Tibetan plateau where they had given birth between June and September used the tunnels, China Newsweek reported.
But Highway 213 is another story.
Cleaning up the carnage
Every work day is busy for Qin Chuansheng, 43, a road maintenance worker on Highway 213. He and his colleagues drive a 15-kilometer patrol along the road clearing away animal carcasses from the night before.
Since the Ruo'ergai county government converted the dirt road into a portion of Highway 213 three years ago, Qin said they have to clear at least five or six bodies a day, sometimes more.
On the same day that the Chengdu field study group arrived, Qin and his crew found the Tibetan mastiff lying in the middle of the road. Though dead, its head was still bleeding. Qin walked back to the car, took out a broom and quickly shoved the dead dog off the road, something he has done hundreds of times in the past few years.
"Big animal bodies like wild dogs and yaks are moved off the road and buried," he told the Global Times. "Small ones like frogs and birds are dumped in the trash."
Most accidents happen in the evening, following rain or snow. "Better road conditions mean more vehicles and an increased of death toll," he said.
Cai Guangchun, a van driver who drives along the highway at least once a month, said drivers should not be blamed.
"No driver hits the animals on purpose. If they hit one, they will be in a bad mood for the rest of the day."
Cai said he almost killed a dog on the highway last month. "I was driving along the highway, and all of the sudden I heard, BANG! A dog came out from nowhere and hit my car, I was stunned and scared." He looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the dog was still alive. Cai said he was relieved.
Like Cai, many drivers just hit and run. "They will not stop as long as their vehicles still work," Cai said. "They are afraid that it might get them into trouble."
Shaking down the drivers
Li Xueping, 46, another road maintenance worker who has been working there for 30 years, told the Global Times that sometimes local herdsmen attempt to blackmail careless drivers.
In August, he and his colleague were asked to handle an accident caused by a drowsy and distracted driver who hit 10 yaks due to driving too fast.
"The driver was caught by the herdsmen and they demanded 140,000 yuan ($20,980) in compensation," Li said.
According to Li, compensation for a dead yak is about 7,000 yuan, while a Tibetan sheep is around 1,000 yuan, both much higher than a normal sale price. The driver reportedly paid about 10,000 yuan.
"If you hit any herdsman's livestock and are caught, you are dead meat," Li added. "Some herdsmen intentionally drive their livestock on the road and make a fortune off those poor drivers."
He said even if drivers drive less than 80 kph, they will still hit the animals.
No herdsman reached by the field study group admitted intentionally killing their stock with unwitting drivers.
Dai Qiang, a former researcher with the Chengdu Institute of Biology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who investigated the road construction effect on wildlife habitats in Ruo'ergai in 2006, proposed some protective measures. It includes setting up warning signs and building animal channels and fences.
Though the local government listened and accepted their proposal, Li Hua, deputy director of the Wetland Protection Bureau, Ruo'ergai county, admitted that the situation is out of control.
"Even though we have some warning signs, they are not working. Drivers don't pay attention to them, and, of course, neither do the animals. The animals don't know how to take a detour to cross the road," he told the Global Times.
Li said additional traffic police will be assigned to look for speeding drivers during various periods in the near future.
Better than nothing
But Li Xiaochong, a volunteer with the Chengdu Bird Watching Society, told the Global Times that Ruo'ergai has set a generally good example for protecting wildlife in the country.
"Compared to many other highways in the country that have no warning signs of any kind, Ruo'ergai has done a good job," he said.
In Ruo'ergai no one knows how many animals are using the tunnels and how many are learning to adapt.
On an early Friday around 6 am the roadkill volunteers were driving back to Chengdu. Inside their van it was quiet and warm and most were sleeping, until the driver suddenly braked.
Jolted awake they saw about 40 yaks - adults and calves - calmly crossing the highway in front of them. Some spotted the van and stopped while others moved back to make way and some calves cautiously followed their mothers across.
"They seem to have been told by their mothers that they should look both ways before crossing the street," van driver Cai joked.
Everyone laughed. The van moved on and the herd moved on unscathed, at least for the moment.