In the past years, ecotourism has grown a lot and it may be harming the wildlife more than it was previously believed, a new research suggests.
Dr. Dan Blumstein, a professor and chair for the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California in Los Angeles stated that:
“Protected areas around the globe receive 8 billion visitors per year. Ecotourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change.”
Human activity – such as taking photos of animals, snorkelling with them, riding them – leads to behavioural changes in animals that live in natural reserves.
The animals become too used to being around humans, and it makes them no longer listen to their natural instinct of running away when humans approach them. This is extremely dangerous, since animals cannot differentiate between harmless tourists and poachers. Their ability to respond to other predator attacks is also dulled.
On Friday, the study was published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Researchers say that the entire ecosystems may be affected by the behavioural changes of animals, and that ecotourism and urbanisation are somewhat alike because they lead to habituation – a form of learning in which an animal stops responding to a stimulus after being repeatedly exposed to it.
Similar things happen to animals both in urban areas and in protected landscapes. For instance the animals that live within the city, or in its close vicinity, experience behavioural chances as the city develops and more human-animal interactions take place.
When wild animals are exposed to humans for a long period of time, they tend to ‘let their guard down’ a lot easier. Prey animals that live in urban areas are no longer aware of the threat posed by predators, because they do not expect to be attacked any more.
Researchers call this the ‘human shield’ effect, because humans – be it residents or tourists – unknowingly act like a fence that protects the prey species against the predatory species.
Besides transitions in behaviour, the study also found some changes in the animals’ physical appearances. When bred in captivity, the silver foxes grew floppy tails, smaller ears, and they also lost pigment in their fur.
In order to reduce these effects there are reversal things that can be implemented. For instance, the human visitation patterns in the protected area should be changed. Also, visitors should stop giving food to the wild animals, because this may gain the trust of the animals, and the long-term effects could be harmful.
Image Source: edysmiletour