Ecotourism seems like it should be a win-win. Visitors get to experience exciting, often exotic locales and see creatures in their natural habitats. The money raised through these visits goes to local communities and to preserving ecosystems.
But what if nature tourism is hurting the very animals we want to protect?
Benjamin Geffroy of the Federal University of Mato Grasso in Brazil and colleagues try to answer that question in a study published October 9 in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The good news is that there are few examples of tourism directly harming animals, and so far their work is mostly theory. But there may be so few examples because we simply aren’t looking for the damage.
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Irresponsible humans can hurt wildlife pretty easily. For example, Mashable recently published a “hilarious” video of a man waking up a sleeping sea otter — an action that is not only potentially harmful to the otter but also illegal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service quickly noted. But that’s not the big problem that Geffroy and his colleagues are warning about. It’s that the mere presence of humans can lead to wildlife becoming less fearful of us or anything else. That could increase the likelihood that animals get killed by predators or poachers.
Evidence for this comes from a few areas. First, when animals are tamed through domestication, they often lose antipredator behaviors. After generations of captive handling, silver foxes, for instance, become more docile and less fearful. Domestic Atlantic salmon don’t respond to potential predators in the same way as their wild brethren. And when breeders select for docility in livestock, there is evidence that those animals may also become more vulnerable to wolves. Animals may also change behavior when they move into human habitats and become urbanized. Many birds, for instance, let people and predators come a closer before they take flight.
The presence of humans can lure animals into a sense of safety. After all, when we’re around, other predators usually aren’t. And irresponsibly feeding the animals may make them even bolder and less wary. Natural predators may be able to take advantage of that, the team says.
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And so might poachers. Will an animal be able to tell the difference between a tourist armed with a camera and a poacher armed with a gun? It’s not clear. But scientists have found that for at least two species — Grauer’s gorillas and Barbary macaques — becoming habituated to the presence of tourists increased the likelihood that the animals would get killed by poachers.
The researchers hope that their study will stimulate more research into this area. But it also might be a good idea for wildlife managers to consider whether letting humans get close to the animals is such a great idea. It might bring more money in, but at a cost we don’t really want to pay.