According to a surprising report published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution , researchers have found ecotourism damaging to wildlife, since it severely perturbs animal behavior.
The study was conducted by a team of scientists, led by Daniel Blumstein, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology with the University of California, Los Angeles.
The experts wanted to investigate the effects of ecotourism, which has become the latest fad for holidaymakers who seek unusual experiences in remote areas.
Ecotourism had initially captured just a small niche in the market, but it progressively grew in demand, as more and more travelers sought a customized alternative to standard mass tourism.
The business has also become highly profitable, “shark ecotourism” alone generating annual revenues of up to $314 million annually, according to estimations.
Findings revealed that in fact the booming popularity of travel destinations that are off the beaten track actually causes significant damage to the ecosystem. The impact on protected areas is tremendous, since these regions now receive roughly 8 billion visits per year, as recent data published in the journal PLOS Biology has shown.
“This massive amount of nature-based and ecotourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change”, explained professor Blumstein.
For example, wild animals that encounter tourists who feed them or pet them may suffer changes in behavior, by becoming overly trusting. Basically, ecotourism has similar effects to urbanization or domestication, which causes species to react in an unnaturally docile manner in the presence of humans.
In addition, animals become less fearful of other potential predators, as they renounce their former wariness. This effect has been nicknamed by study authors the “human shield”, since the presence of travelers may make attackers less likely to go near their prey, while lowering the victim’s vigilance when such an assault occurs.
Dulling instincts and responsiveness also can leave wild creatures vulnerable to poachers and polluters, and could result in a decline in their population numbers.
Even minor changes in mortality rates could result in extinction, if the species is already endangered. Therefore, as animals from protected landscapes undergo this process of taming, entire natural habitats could eventually be disrupted.
Meanwhile however, the International Ecotourism Society insists that ecotourism is conducted responsibly, in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly manner. The organization believes that this type of traveling actually helps conserve the ecosystem, while greatly diminishing “physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts”.
Despite these reassurances, professor Blumstein suggests the long-term consequences of nature-based tourism should be more carefully assessed, in order to determine how animals respond to human visitation.
His findings call into question allegations that ecotourism can actually enhance bio-diversity, and point out the fact that the sustainability of this practice may have been grossly overestimated.
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