LONDON — In the latest sign of the tensions between mankind and nature in the world's expanding cities, London's last breeding colony of hedgehogs is at risk from a $73 billion rail project.
The construction of Britain's High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) line requires half of the London Zoo's parking lot for trucks as one of the city's busiest train stations is remodeled. But the shrubs and hedges surrounding it happen to be home to around 30 hedgehogs.
This group of creatures represent what experts say is the city's best hope of understanding how to reverse the rapid decline in numbers of the much-loved British mammal.
Brits who spot hedgehogs in their yards eagerly share the news and photos with friends, and the animals are popular in children's stories. In 2015, one lawmaker even suggested that the hedgehog should be declared Britain's national animal.
"All those lights, the noise and the vibrations of [trucks] for next 16 years will lead to the extinction of hedgehogs in central London," said David Field, the zoological director at the Zoological Society of London, which runs the London Zoo. "If it was a year or two they could likely cope, but you're talking about generations of hedgehogs."
"Development can be devastating for wildlife"
HS2 is one of the largest construction projects in the U.K. It will reduce journey times from London to the cities of Birmingham, and eventually Manchester and Leeds.
To protect the hedgehogs, the Thames Water utility company, which will be working on the site for six months before the HS2 trucks roll in, will put in place a package of wildlife protection measures. They include establishing wildlife corridors and laying down new hedgehog nest boxes.
In addition, HS2 has hired a team of ecologists to advise on environmental issues that arise across the proposed rail route.
They will monitor the hedgehog population in the parking lot, located on the edge of Regent's Park, one of London's most popular green spaces.
"Safety, efficiency and environmental protection are at the heart of HS2's approach to construction," a spokesman for the government-run project said.
The situation highlights the problems facing nature as cities around the world continue to grow.
"In the U.K., over 80 percent of people live in towns and cities," said Mark Fellowes, a professor of ecology at the University of Reading who specializes in urban ecosystems.
"That puts huge pressure on how we use land. Conflict between wildlife and humans is almost inevitable. Development can be devastating for wildlife. On the other hand, given how intensive agriculture is, towns and cities can also be real refuges for wildlife."
Despite the love for these critters, the number of hedgehogs in the U.K. has dramatically declined in recent decades.
Since 2000, the country's hedgehog population has decreated by about half in rural areas and about a third in urban areas, according to a 2015 report by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and People's Trust for Endangered Species.
While theories abound, no one understands exactly why this is.
What Field and his zoo colleagues would like most is an opportunity to understand why the parking lot area, and not another section of Regent's Park or London, has become the breeding population's choice of home.
But with utility work on the site starting now, time is exactly what the zoologists do not have.
Field says the measures HS2 and Thames Water are taking won't make enough of a difference.
"I'm not opposed to the HS2 but surely all the brains behind this incredible project could find somewhere else to park," he said. "We've offered other solutions and options. It just takes a certain will."