LOS ANGELES, California, November 16, 2015 (Maximpact News) – Drawn to the beauty of natural landscapes and the exotic animals that live there, ecotourists leave money behind when they go home, but they may also leave the wild animals they have enjoyed viewing more vulnerable because of their presence.
Protected areas around the world receive a total of more than eight billion visits each year. Ecotourism is supposed to enhance conservation through ecologically responsible travel.
But after analyzing over 100 research studies on how ecotourism affects wild animals, an international team of scientists in the United States, France and Brazil has concluded that such visits can be harmful to the animals.
When wild animals are habituated to the presence of humans, their behaviors may be altered in ways that put them at risk, the researchers have found.
When animals interact in seemingly benign ways with humans, they may let down their guard, said Daniel Blumstein, the study’s senior author and professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“This massive amount of nature-based and ecotourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change,” said Blumstein.
As animals learn to relax in the presence of humans, they may become bolder in other situations, he said. If this transfers to their interactions with predators, they are more likely to be injured or killed.
The presence of humans can also discourage natural predators, creating a kind of safe haven for prey animals that may make them bolder.
For example, in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, elk and pronghorns in areas with more tourists are less alert and spend more time eating, Blumstein and his colleagues report.
Interacting with people can cause a change in the characteristics of various species over time.
“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,” the researchers write.
“Even a small human-induced perturbation could affect the behavior or population biology of a species and influence the species’ function in its community,” they write.
Ecotourism has effects similar to those of animal domestication and urbanization, the researchers point out.
Research has shown that domesticated silver foxes become more docile and less fearful, a process that results from evolutionary changes, but also from regular interactions with humans, Blumstein said.
Domesticated fish are less responsive to simulated predatory attacks.
Fox squirrels and birds that live in urbanized areas are slower to flee from danger than their wild counterparts.
Blumstein hopes the new analysis will encourage more research into the interactions between people and wildlife.
“It is essential,” he said, “to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how various species in various situations respond to human interaction and under what conditions human exposure may place them at risk.”
This research is published in the current issue of the journal “Trends in Ecology and Evolution.”
The study’s co-authors are Benjamin Geffroy, a postdoctoral researcher with France’s Institute National De La Recherche Agronomique in Rennes; Diogo Samia, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of ecology at the Federal University of Goias, in Brazil; and Eduardo Bessa, a professor at the State University of Ponta Grossa, also in Brazil.
Award-winning journalist Sunny Lewis is founding editor in chief of the Environment News Service (ENS), the original daily wire service of the environment, publishing since 1990.