The rise of Ecotourism is a great conservation success story. Many communities have switched focus from hunting species to protecting species to gain profit from tourism. Ecotourism is the main source of income in Ventanilla, Mexico, equating more money in a 2 week period than a small restaurant. Ecotourism motivates poor communities toward conservation, however, it is unclear how much frequent contact with humans affects species loved by tourists. Our Online Media Intern investigates.
The success of established whale shark watching industries in Australia and Belize, reporting annual economic returns of US$24 million and US$1.35 million, has inspired many South-East Asian fishing villages to build ecotourism industries supporting the protection of Whale sharks. No surprise as whale shark meat in the Taiwanese market sells for US$12,948 for a 2800kg individual whereas a live whale shark is now estimated to be worth at least US$2 million over its 60 year lifetime.
The survival of elephants also relies on local communities realising the economic value of local wildlife is much higher and more sustainable when they are kept alive. Ivory currently stands at £21,000 a piece, whereas a living elephant is worth 76 times more through tourism ventures, with the added benefit of providing income towards local economies, unlike the ivory trade.
A brilliant example of financial benefit to locals is in the U.S. where sea turtle tourism on the South East coast provides more than 500,000 visitors per year, providing a quarter of a million dollars to some counties in only 2 months. Almost all the income gained through turtle tourism goes back to regional residents, giving them incentive to protect sea turtles for future generations. What remains to be investigated is how tourism affects the turtle themselves? The impacts of tourism on terrestrial species has been thoroughly investigated, however, it is lacking in marine species.
A study into endangered loggerhead sea turtles nesting in the Mediterrean found turtles actively avoided beaches with tourists. The largest amount of tourists would be in the nesting season, when the most turtles are around, but this means the turtles often didn’t breed or nest. The study indicated the importance of taking the number of animals into account when setting the wildlife viewing guidelines, especially when numbers fluctuate.
White tip reef sharks also show distribution changes due to human disturbance by spending more time diving deeper in the daytime to avoid tourist boats, which can have detrimental effects on energy expenditure and therefore survival.
Other aspects of species behaviour may change too, according to a paper published last year reviewing the potential threats to species under high human disturbance from Eco-Tourism (see figure below). Animals may become less scared of humans, making them vulnerable to fishing or bycatch. Tourism may negatively influence behavioural response to predators through habituation (a diminishing response to a repeated stimulus). Effects may be direct, through individuals becoming bolder, or indirect, human presence may decrease the number of predators in a given area. Nature based tourism usually involves using feed or bait to attract the species to ensure the paying public get a complete experience for their money, however, this can have more detrimental effects than habituation.
Hamelin Bay, Austrailia is a very common site for feeding of sting rays for tourists. You would think providing food to a species will be beneficial to their survival, but the sting rays of Hamelin Bay usually end up fighting each other for spoils, putting themselves and the public in danger. Boat collisions, water pollution feeding and skin lesions from touching tourists are among the other negative effects of this type of tourism. Investigating levels of tourism and the effects these may have on behaviour are essential for tourist and wildlife safety.
But what of aggressive species where humans can be on the menu? Feeding of crocodiles is common within the industry in Northern Austrailia as crocs will jump up towards bait, a natural behavior, giving tourists a great photo opportunity and connection with the species. Currently there are no permits of regulations on how many times a tourist boat may precipitate this behaviour, putting tourists at risk due to the aggressive nature of crocodiles. A more standardized system is required, which incorporates crocodile behaviour science, as the effects of feeding to their survival are missing from literature.
Taking sharks contentious nature into consideration, Great whites in South Africa are lured in for tourism but not fed, no surprise as shark tourism generates millions of dollars per year, allowing a change in the common view that sharks are man eating monsters. There is little known about how feeding great whites alters behaviour hence why The Cayman Islands, Florida and Hawaii have banned feeding Great whites completely, as it’s seen as too risky for an aggressive species.A study investigating the behaviour of sharks during a summer of tourism found that most sharks weren’t interested in eating the bait, showing no negative impacts of habituation. The sharks that did enjoy the food on offer and came back for it, would lose interest after a few encounters. The study will be continued investigating different levels of tourism to see if prolonged Great white tourism may be possible.
Other species shown not to be affected by human disturbance include the Marine iguana, Magellanic penguins and California sea lions. Although, diverse levels of tourism can cause different responses, which needs further investigation. Attractions could incorporate an extra fee to help fund these valuable investigations.
Similarly, tourist behaviour needs to be studied to allow better understanding of areas that satisfy tourist experience. For instance in Monkey Mia, dolphin feeding is strictly monitored with an educational program to increase tourist understanding of why dolphin feeding needs to be restriced. A paper evaluating this method found the educational programme increased tourist involvement and environmental awareness.
It is clear ecotourism can flip the trajectory of wildlife and their habitats protection on its head, benefiting local communities and economies at the same time. For now, it seems the benefit outweigh the costs when it comes to ecotourism. Identifying keystone species maybe the first step in preventing harmful effects to species but regular monitoring of current tourism attractions is also key. Future research requires investigating tourist and species behaviour on a larger spatial/time scale, as well as the effects of different types of feeding strategies to ensure their persistence in the wild and the industry.
By Meike Simms - Online Media Intern