Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world

Sarah Zielinski

Wild Things

Wild Things

Ecotourism could bring new dangers to animals


People can get close to gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo because the animals are habituated to humans. That could make them vulnerable to poachers. Ecotourism could bring such dangers to other creatures, a new study warns.

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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.

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.

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.

Animals,, Evolution

How the giraffe got its long neck

By Sarah Zielinski 2:30pm, October 7, 2015
A new study of fossils suggests that the giraffe’s defining feature may have started evolving long before modern giraffes came on the scene.
Animals,, Oceans

What happens to animals in a hurricane?

By Sarah Zielinski 12:33pm, October 2, 2015
Hurricanes can be devastating to animals on land and in the sea, but they can also provide opportunities.
Animals,, Climate,, Oceans

Some seabirds will be hit hard by sea level rise

By Sarah Zielinski 11:24am, September 30, 2015
Seabird species that nest on low-lying islands in stormy winter months could see huge losses as sea levels rise, a new study finds.
Animals,, Plants,, Earth

Life in the polar ocean is surprisingly active in the dark winter

By Sarah Zielinski 6:00am, September 28, 2015
The Arctic polar winter may leave marine ecosystems dark for weeks on end, but life doesn’t shut down, a new study finds.

How to see sea turtles — without bothering them

By Sarah Zielinski 12:00pm, September 23, 2015
Sea turtles come out of the water to lay eggs on beaches. It’s a great time to see the reptiles — if you know what you are doing.
Animals,, Evolution

Blue-footed boobies dirty their eggs to hide them from predators

By Sarah Zielinski 6:00am, September 21, 2015
Blue-footed boobies lay bright white eggs on the ground. Dirtying the eggs camouflages them against gulls, a new study finds.
Animals,, Plants,, Ecology

Why we need predators

By Sarah Zielinski 7:00am, September 17, 2015
It might be easy to say that we should wipe out species that can kill us. But the effects of such action would be far ranging.
Animals,, Sustainability

Shipwreck provides window into Tudor-era cod fishing

By Sarah Zielinski 5:00am, September 13, 2015
In the 1500s, England was feeding its navy with fish caught far from home, a new study finds.
Animals,, Evolution

How a seahorse dad is like a pregnant woman

By Sarah Zielinski 1:00pm, September 10, 2015
Live birth has evolved at least 150 times in vertebrates, including in seahorses and humans. And there are some surprising similarities between the species.
Animals,, Ecology

Rabbits leave a mark on soil long after they are gone

By Sarah Zielinski 2:00pm, September 4, 2015
Twenty years after rabbits were removed from a sub-Antarctic island, soil fungus has yet to return to normal, a study finds.
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