Ecotourism has grown into a massive industry, in which protected areas around the world receive an estimated 8 billion visitors per year. Driven by the desire to see exotic wildlife while helping to pay for conservation and community development, it is frequently seen as the ethical, “green” way to travel. But all these trips to wildlife preservations, despite good intentions, might be having unintended consequences.
This increase in activity in these far-flung regions of the world might be desensitizing wild animals, habituating them and making them used to the presence of humans. This, in turn, makes them less scared of their natural predators, and so could increase their chances of being eaten. “This massive amount of nature-based and ecotourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change,” explains Daniel Blumstein, senior author of the study published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
Tourists can habituate animals, making them less likely to respond to predators. Benjamin Geffroy.
Whichever way you think about it, 8 billion visitors to areas that are meant to be “protected” sounds like a lot of people. And it is. In areas of high tourism such as Balule Game Reserve in South Africa, roads are eroded by the off-road vehicles ferrying visitors around, and in parts of the Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona, whole areas are stripped of fossils by souvenir hunters. This has led some parks to try and manage these impacts, from tarmacking roads in Kruger National Park to limiting the number of gorilla-watching permits issued for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
But it seems that our influence goes further, no matter how carefully you tread or how faithfully you abide by the adage of “take only photographs, leave only footprints.” By simply being there with the animals in question, you could be negatively impacting them. The researchers analyzed over 100 studies on how ecotourism affects wildlife, and found that it changed the animals’ behavior in a similar way as seen with domesticated animals, such as becoming less alert to potential threats.
“When animals interact in 'benign' ways with humans, they may let down their guard,” says Blumstein. This is a problem: If they get used to loud and noisy humans, then this can translate in different ways in other more pivotal situations. “If this boldness transfers to real predators, then they will suffer higher mortality when they encounter real predators.”
With domesticated fish less responsive to simulated predators, and domesticated silver foxes far more docile and less fearful, the researchers suggest that this could be happening to their wild counterparts. But it’s not all as simple as that. While the prey animals might be less scared of people, that might not be true for their predators. The presence of people can also create a kind of safe haven around the prey species, deterring potential predators, and in the cases of animals like elephants and gorillas, even poachers.
The researchers hope that this new study will encourage more research into the complex interactions between humans and wildlife, and how different species might change in response to the increased pressure from tourism.