Why Ecotourism Might Not Be a Good Thing for Some Animal Species

Ecotourism has become increasingly popular as holiday makers attempt to make their vacations as friendly to both the environment and the local community they are visiting as possible, but a new study suggests that, for some native animal species, ecotourism could in fact carry significant problems.

The reason, posits Professor Daniel Blumstein and his team from Califorina, is the way that ecotourism tends to encourage visits that are “nature-based” and that in turn means either indirectly interacting with native animal species, for example passing through their habitats on nature walks and the like, or directly interacting with them, for example during popular “feed-the-wildlife” interactions.

The research, published this month in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, suggests that frequent tourist interactions, and the staff habituation that underpin that with designated feeding times and behavior control, modify the local animal populations’ behavior. This in turn interrupts their instinctual behavior and may make them slower to react to predator threats.

The kind of issues the study flags include the following examples:

Reserve managers or ecotourist providers may explicitly habituate animals so as to ensure client satisfaction. For instance, Ugandan park rangers habituated chimpanzees through daily visits in Kibale National Park so as to improve the quality of chimpanzee-watching ecotourists.

Food provisioning by tourist operators and guides has also led to documented changes in behavior. For instance, previous studies have shown that individuals learn to anticipate feeding events and that provisioning food might increase aggression within and between species, resulting in wounding.

The researchers, using a framework of their own design, looked at what impact this “anti-predator” behavior change might have on the animals and whether this kind of domestication is making the animals more docile and less responsive to predator and external threats. Looking at a range of studies involving a number of species the researchers were able to see how the kinds of behavior ecotourism could be producing more domesticated animals, which in turn makes the species as a whole less wary and bolder. When that happens, evidence suggests they will suffer higher predator losses.

The researchers also discuss the “human shield” problem. This issue relates to how urbanization and interaction (for example as a result of creating a tourist activity or pathway through a habitat) can create an area in which prey animals regularly interact with humans. The downside is that this teaches the animals to be more tolerant of intruders in their territory. As a result of this, the species can then be left vulnerable to opportunistic predators who may not now trigger the animals’ flight response.

The study offers the following example:

In another, more recent example, tourist presence (using car traffic as a proxy) also sheltered both pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) and elk (Cervus elephus) from predators in Grand Teton National Park. This modified prey behavior: pronghorn and elk spent significantly less time in alert postures, more time feeding, and were in smaller groups in the areas with many tourists compared with the areas with fewer tourists.

Professor Daniel Blumstein is quoted as saying: “Recent data showed that protected areas around the globe receive eight billion visitors per year; that’s like each human on Earth visited a protected area once a year, and then some. This massive amount of nature-based and eco-tourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change.”

The researchers make it clear that they do not believe that ecotourism is necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, in many ways it is much preferable to the blunt force of regular tourism that can be detrimental to the environment, as well as the species of animals, and the people who live there. However, their research raises a specific concern about how our desire to get in touch with nature could adversely impact species.

The researchers believe this may be particularly true if we were to effect key “cornerstone” species, that is to say species who play an invaluable role in the food chain. By changing their behavior, the researchers argue, we could potentially put them at risk which would in turn put other species at risk too.

Professor Blumstein is quoted as adding to his previous statement that, “Even a small human-induced perturbation could affect the behavior or population biology of a species and influence the species’ function in its community. It will now be essential to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how different species and species in different situations respond to human visitation and under what precise conditions human exposure might put them at risk.”

The key thing this research shows is that we simply don’t know what impact our ecotourism might have but that there are many unanswered questions about ecotourism that we need to answer in order to ensure that our attempts at a more friendly vacation aren’t having unforeseen consequences.

It’s worth mentioning that, to their credit, major ecotourism providers have focused on minimizing the impact they have on local wildlife, and that is something they are continuing to work on as an industry. Hopefully, developments from this research can enable these companies to take further steps to safeguard wildlife. It may also be worth bearing in mind the potential problems wildlife interactions can cause should you wish to book an eco-holiday.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

34 comments

Melania Padilla
Melania P1 years ago

Some animals are better left alone, sharing

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Julia Cabrera-Woscek
Julia C1 years ago

I have seen some instances of ecotourism that have encountered wildlife (harassed) and make it an ordeal to the wildlife to be harassed forever.

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha R2 years ago

Thank you

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Muriel Servaege
Muriel S2 years ago

I definitely agree.

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Ron B.
Ron B2 years ago

Take only pictures and leave only footprints---unless humans shouldn't even be there in the first place.

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Gayle J.
Gayle, J2 years ago

Why can't people enjoy watching animals in their habitat on their tvs or online? Why do they have to be there in person as they disturb the animals and ultimately change their behavior? I love all animals and would l love to interact with them but I love them enough to leave them alone and live in peace.

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Maggie W.
Maggie D2 years ago

Habituation of any animal species puts them in grave danger of trusting the wrong people. Feeding them makes their dependence on us a detriment to them. Ecotourism is twisting people's perception of wild animals and could ultimately lead to their downfall.

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Kamia T.
Kamia T2 years ago

As the turtle beaches in Costa Rica showed, were greedy tourists and poachers made it impossible for them to successfully breed this year, it clearly ISN'T working!

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Lori Hone
Lori H2 years ago

ty

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