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.


Some jellyfish sting deeper than others

By Sarah Zielinski 12:20pm, September 1, 2015
A new study shows that some jellyfish have nematocysts that can sting deep into the skin. That may explain why their sting is so painful.
Animals,, Ecology

Coral competitor becomes ally in fight against starfish

By Sarah Zielinski 1:00pm, August 28, 2015
On the reef, algae compete with coral. But they may also protect coral from attacks by crown-of-thorns starfish, a new study finds.

A world of mammal diversity has been lost because of humans

By Sarah Zielinski 9:55am, August 26, 2015
Humans have eradicated large mammal biodiversity in most regions of the globe, a new study finds.
Plants,, Animals

What fairy circles teach us about science

By Sarah Zielinski 6:30am, August 20, 2015
Science can’t yet tell us how fairy circles form, but that’s not a failure for science.
Animals,, Conservation

A UFO would stress out a bear

By Sarah Zielinski 12:00pm, August 13, 2015
Scientists need to know how animals, such as bears, react to the drones being used increasingly to study them.
Animals,, Conservation

Cougars may provide a net benefit to humans

By Sarah Zielinski 3:27pm, August 12, 2015
Cougars have disappeared from the eastern United States. If they returned, they’d kill deer, preventing many car crashes, scientists find.
Animals,, Conservation

Gibbons have been disappearing from China for centuries

By Sarah Zielinski 4:00pm, August 6, 2015
Gibbons are now found in only a small area of southwestern China. But they once thrived across much of the country, records show.

Don’t let Cecil the lion distract from the big conservation challenges

By Sarah Zielinski 4:11pm, August 4, 2015
Cecil the lion’s death rocketed across the news and social media. But there are bigger conservation challenges that need attention, too.
Animals,, Ecology

How bears engineer Japanese forests

By Sarah Zielinski 1:00pm, July 31, 2015
In Japanese forests, black bears climb trees, breaking limbs. Those gaps in the forest provide light to fruiting plants, a new study finds.
Animals,, Plants

On the importance of elephant poop

By Sarah Zielinski 4:57pm, July 28, 2015
Asian elephants are key dispersers for tree seeds. A new study finds that buffalo and cattle can also disperse the seeds, but not nearly as well.
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