Just by observing nature, you could also be influencing it – and not always for the best.
Ecotourism is regularly presented as a way to promote an appreciation of the natural world and to increase awareness of the problems it faces. It can also be used to fund important conservation projects. Nevertheless, despite its often good intentions, it could be having some far-reaching effects on animal behavior.
A new piece of research looked into how the booming industry of wildlife tourism affects the animals it targets. In particular, they looked at how wildlife tourism expeditions change the behavior of great white sharks. The study suggests that cage-diving could actually be putting these bold and blood-thirsty predators at risk by changing their eating patterns and draining them of precious energy.
As reported in the journal Conservation Physiology, scientists studied the behavior and movement of 10 great white sharks over nine days around South Australia's Neptune Islands. Their findings suggest that the great white sharks that interact with cage-divers exert 61 percent more dynamic body acceleration than those that were nowhere near the boats.
Commercial shark-related tourist activities are not allowed to feed great white sharks with food, so they lure them in with attractants. This means the sharks can burn up a lot of energy chasing the lure or being distracted by it, without any food as a payoff. This increased energy expenditure sounds like bad news, although the researchers concede they don’t yet know how these changes affect the health of individual animals or wider animal populations.
"This suggests that the cage-diving industry has the potential to affect the energy budget of white sharks," Charlie Huveneers, associate professor at Flinders University and the study's lead researcher, said in a statement. "However, the mere presence of the cage-diving operators in the general vicinity of the sharks was not sufficient to elicit such behavioral changes. These only occurred when white sharks were close to the cage-diving vessels."
"Spending time interacting with cage-diving operators might distract sharks from normal behaviors such as foraging on natural, energy-rich prey like pinnipeds," Huveneers added.
Other studies looking at other species have reached similar conclusions. A study in 2015 found that increased ecotourism could be desensitizing wild animals and making them used to the presence of predators. In turn, this increases their chances of being eaten.
On the other side of the argument, some researchers contend that ecotourism still has the power to do good in the world, especially for the conservation of species threatened with extinction.