Why didn’t the forest elephant cross the road? It feared for its life, according to results of a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Save the Elephants.

The threat of encounters with poachers rises as new roadways are carved into wildlife habitat in Central Africa’s Congo Basin. Because these highly intelligent animals now associate roads with danger, they are avoiding them at all costs.

The authors of the study tracked 28 forest elephants with GPS collars and found that they have adopted a “siege mentality.” Only one of the elephants crossed a road outside of a protected area. As it crossed, it traveled at 14 times its normal pace.

Forest elephants showed adverse reactions to roads even in the largest remaining wilderness areas in Central Africa. This is bad news for these endangered pachyderms, since a boom in road building is underway.

“Forest elephants are basically living in fear…in prisons created by roads. They are roaming around the woods like frightened mice rather than tranquil, formidable giants of their forest realm,” said Dr. Stephen Blake, the study’s lead author. He added that starvation, disease, stress, infighting, and social disruption are likely to result.

Losing access to food and important mineral deposits may elicit aggressive and other negative behaviors among different social groups, which in turn can affect reproductive success. Other negative impacts include overgrazing of local vegetation and reduced seed dispersal by elephants, which is vital to helping regenerate forests.

Since the data were collected, even more roads have been constructed in half of the six study sites in wilderness areas of Republic of Congo and Gabon. Other multi-billion dollar development projects loom. However, the study’s authors say there is still time to stem the crisis.

“A small yet very feasible shift in development planning, one that is actually good for poor local forest people and for wildlife and wilderness, would be a tremendous help to protect forest elephants and their home,” said Blake. “Planning roads to give forest elephants breathing space so that at least those in the deep forest can relax, as well as…reducing poaching would be trivial in terms of cost but massively important for conservation.”

WCS elephant conservation efforts have been supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s African Elephant Conservation Fund, Save the Elephants, USAID CARPE, Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank (GEF Congo), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Program, University of Maryland, Society for Conservation and Development, the European Union’s Espèces Phares Project and the Central African Network of Protected Areas and Columbus Zoo. The African Elephant Conservation Fund was enacted in 1990 to address the devastating effect of illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory.