Does Ecotourism Hurt or Help?

When critters get used to tourists, they may be less aware of both predators and poachers

Eco-tourists snorkeling with fish in a Brazilian river Benjamin Geffroy

Ecotourism is travel with a purpose: To conserve and contribute to remote communities and delicate ecosystems. And business is booming—tourists can snorkel with whale sharks to fund their protection or help scientists track jaguars in Costa Rica. But a new study shows that this tourism may put animals at risk.

Every year, eight billion tourists throng to protected areas around the globe. "That's like each human on Earth visited a protected area once a year, and then some," study author Daniel Blumstein says in a press release

This impressive statistic made Blumstein, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, question how that many visitors affect the animals. So along with his colleagues, Blumstein evaluated more than 100 studies of wild animals in areas with ecotourism, reports Rebekah Marcarelli for HNGN

This search showed that the animals grow accustomed to human presence. In some cases, reserve managers and ecotourism companies actually facilitate these interactions. For example, park rangers in Uganda’s Kibale National Park visit chimpanzees daily to ensure they make an appearance for the tourists, the researchers write in the paper recently published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

"The question we’re asking is, 'Does this mean they become more vulnerable to predators?'" Blumstein tells Jon Gugala for Outside. “The degree to which animals become dumb around humans is a really interesting question."

When people are around, predators are deterred. But when people leave, animals may keep their guard down. The Elk and antelope in the Grand Teton National Park are only one example. These creatures grow accustomed to noise from tourists and their cars, and so they spend less time alert for predators and more time feeding. Birds in urban areas also suffer from acclimation. The city birds are more bold, and as a result, they are more frequently nabbed by sparrowhawks.

But the danger extends beyond regular predators: Researchers also fear that poachers can more easily bag these human-accustomed critters.

Ultimately, this study doesn't prove ecotourism harms wildlife. Still, there’s enough evidence that experts should be concerned, the researchers write. It’s a "rallying cry" for more research, Blumstein tells Christopher Intagliata for Scientific American. Even when people mean well, they could be changing the environment.

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