Impact of off-road vehicles (ORVs) on ghost crabs of sandy beaches with traffic restrictions: a case study of Sodwana Bay, South Africa.
In some wilderness areas, wildlife encounter vehicles disrupt their behaviour and habitat use. Changing driver behaviour has been proposed where bans on vehicle use are politically unpalatable, but the efficacy of vehicle setbacks and reduced speeds remains largely untested. We characterised bird-vehicle encounters in terms of driver behaviour and the disturbance caused to birds, and tested whether spatial buffers or lower speeds reduced bird escape responses on open beaches. Focal observations showed that: i) most drivers did not create sizeable buffers between their vehicles and birds; ii) bird disturbance was frequent; and iii) predictors of probability of flushing (escape) were setback distance and vehicle type (buses flushed birds at higher rates than cars). Experiments demonstrated that substantial reductions in bird escape responses required buffers to be wide (> 25 m) and vehicle speeds to be slow (< 30 km h⁻¹). Setback distances can reduce impacts on wildlife, provided that they are carefully designed and derived from empirical evidence. No speed or distance combination we tested, however, eliminated bird responses. Thus, while buffers reduce response rates, they are likely to be much less effective than vehicle-free zones (i.e. beach closures), and rely on changes to current driver behaviour.