Monday, October 12, 2015

Ecotourism may be doing more harm than good say researchers

Ecotourists may be putting wildlife at risk by changing the behaviour of the creatures they flock to see, researchers have warned.

Animals that become accustomed to large numbers of visitors are likely to lose some of their instinct for self preservation, US experts said.

The “taming” effect is said to run the risk of leaving them more at the mercy of predators.

Lead researcher Dr Daniel Blumstein, from the University of California at Los Angeles, said: “When animals interact in ‘benign’ ways with humans, they may let down their guard.

Tourists snorkelling surrounded by fish in a tributary of the Cuiaba in Brazil. Image by Cell Press/PA Wire

“As animals get used to feeling comfortable with humans nearby, they may become bolder in other situations.

“If this boldness transfers to real predators, then they will suffer higher mortality when they encounter real predators.”

Ecotourism is booming, with protected areas around the world receiving eight billion visitors a year, the team pointed out.

“This massive amount of nature-based ecotourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change,” Dr Blumstein said.

Writing in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, the researchers compare the effects of ecotourism with that of animal domestication and urbanisation.
Foxes in urban areas less likely to flee from danger. Image by Steve K / CC BY 2.0

In each case, interactions between people and animals could lead to habituation – described as “a kind of taming”.

Evidence from domesticated silver foxes to goldfish had shown that animals living in close proximity to humans become less wary of predators.

Foxes, squirrels and birds living in urban areas were also bolder and less likely to flee from danger.
Researchers are warning that ecotourism might be doing more harm than good. Image by Daryl Wallace / CC BY-SA 2.0 

In some cases, the presence of humans could discourage predators and create safe havens, the researchers added.

With humans around, vervet monkeys were less bothered by leopards, for instance.

But the scientists questioned what might happen to these animals when the visitors leave.

They wrote: “We know that humans are able to drive rapid … change in other species.

“If individuals selectively habituate to humans – particularly tourists – and if invasive tourism practices enhance this habituation, we might be selecting for or creating traits or syndromes that have unintended consequences, such as increased predation risk.

“Even a small human-induced perturbation could affect the behaviour or population biology of a species and influence the species’ function in its community.”

(Press Association)


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