How does ecotourism affect ecosystems?

Researchers urge caution as visitation to wildlife areas booms

A seal is far outnumbered by tourists on the shores of Paulet Island, along the Antarctic Peninsula. @bberwyn photo.
A seal is far outnumbered by tourists on the shores of Paulet Island, along the Antarctic Peninsula. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

Ecotourism has been hailed as a sustainable economic driver and a force for environmental conservation, but a new report says we also need to account for the possible adverse effects of visitation to relatively wild spaces.

In a new report published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, researchers said all of those interactions between wild animals and friendly ecotourists eager to snap their pictures may inadvertently put some animals at greater risk of being eaten.

It’s clear that the ecotourism business is booming. “Recent data showed that protected areas around the globe receive 8 billion visitors per year; that’s like each human on Earth visited a protected area once a year, and then some,” said Daniel Blumstein of the University of California, Los Angeles. “This massive amount of nature-based and eco-tourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change.”

Blumstein said the new report sets out “a new way of thinking about possible long-term effects of nature-based tourism and encourages scientists and reserve managers to carefully assess the sustainability of a type of tourism, which typically aims to enhance, not deplete, biodiversity.”

After reviewing other studies about animal behavior and interactions with humans, the report concluded that human activity changes the way animals act — and those changes might spill over into other parts of their lives. The changes in behavior and activity may put animals at risk in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.

“When animals interact in ‘benign’ ways with humans, they may let down their guard,” Blumstein said. As animals get used to feeling comfortable with humans nearby, they may become bolder in other situations, he said. “If this boldness transfers to real predators, then they will suffer higher mortality when they encounter real predators.”

The report compares the effects of ecotourism to domestication or urbanization. In all three cases, regular interactions between people and animals may lead to habituation — a kind of taming. For example, domesticated silver foxes become more docile and less fearful; a process that results from evolutionary changes but also from regular interactions with humans. Domesticated fish are less responsive to simulated predatory attacks. Fox squirrels and birds that live in urbanized areas are bolder. It takes more to make them flee.

The presence of humans can also discourage natural predators, creating a kind of safe haven for smaller animals that might make them bolder, too. When humans are around, for example, vervet monkeys have fewer run-ins with predatory leopards. In Grand Teton National Park, elk and pronghorn in areas with more tourists spend less time at alert and more time feeding.

The question is to what extent do these more relaxed and bolder behaviors around humans transfer to other situations, leaving animals at greater risk in the presence of their natural predators? And what happens if a poacher comes around?

“We know that humans are able to drive rapid phenotypic change in other species,” the researchers wrote. “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 behavior or population biology of a species and influence the species’ function in its community.”

Blumstein said the researchers hope to stimulate more research on the interactions of humans with wildlife.

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,” he concluded.

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3 thoughts on “How does ecotourism affect ecosystems?

  1. Leopold (1949) wrote about some of the harmful effects of ecotourism under the heading “recreation.” Few people have heard of Leopold, or have enough respect for animals and nature to care.

  2. True ecotourism minimizes impact. It may well be impossible to completely avoid it, but even with a few problems ecotourism is often better than some other land uses. There is however a tendency to call any nature based tourism ‘eco,’ and often the operators, politicians and tourism organisations, and even some environmental consultants, have insufficient understanding of ecosysems or animal behaviour to be able to adequately assess impacts.

    1. You’ve identified the core of the problem. I’m pretty uneasy with how easily the ecotourism tag is used to try and greenwash activities that are clearly detrimental to the environment.

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