Ecotourism could be making animals less scared, and easier to eat


Daniel Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles; Benjamin Geffroy, Institut Nationale de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) – Université Paris Saclay; Diogo Samia, Universidade de Sao Paulo, and Eduardo Bessa, Universidade do Estado de Mato Grosso

Wildlife populations are suffering death by a thousand cuts as a result of human activities. Wildlife are being hunted, fished, and poached. They are suffering from climate change and pollution. Diseases take their toll, as do newly invasive species. They are also being fragmented as a function of increased habitat destruction.

These are obvious culprits of environmental disruption. But there is one realm where we may be having an unanticipated impact on wildlife: nature-based tourism.

It is possible that our increasing penchant for nature tourism is making wildlife in these areas more vulnerable to predators. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have enough data to properly assess this risk.

Our team brought attention to this concern in a review recently published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. In the study, we attempt to understand how animals may become more docile, bolder, and less fearful when exposed to humans.

We suggest this could then potentially lead to an increased risk of predation when people leave the area, signalling an unrecognised cost of ecotourism.

A ‘human shield’

To domesticate animals, we must tame them, and this often means deliberately selecting those individuals that are more docile and tolerant. Domestication is, in part, achieved by making animals safe from predators – for example by fencing them in, bringing them into our homes, or raising them in cages.

We are now learning that urbanisation causes similar effects: animals that prosper in the cities are generally more docile and less fearful of humans than animals that live outside the cities. There is also evidence of genetic evolution of urban animal populations.

In many cases, predators avoid urban areas, creating a “human shield” that protects urban prey and can trigger a cascade of ecological changes. Behind such a shield, prey become more likely to frequent the areas predators avoid. This leads prey to be less vigilant against predators and devote a greater time to foraging. We can often see these effects when the vegetation takes a noticeable hit.

But urbanised areas are not the only context where human shields can arise. Nature-based tourism, too, might create a shield effect.

More tourists, more animals getting eaten?

According to a recent report, there are more than 8 billion visits to terrestrial protected areas annually. That’s as if each person on Earth visited a protected area once, and then some! This number is even more impressive given that the report only considered visitors to protected areas larger than 10 hectares, and didn’t include marine protected areas.

Such a human presence on natural areas has obvious damaging effects, such as increased traffic and pollution, vegetation trampling, and vehicle collisions with wildlife. However, in our study we speculate that nature-based tourism might, under certain circumstances, also create a human shield that makes wildlife more vulnerable to predators.

We already know that this has increased some species’ vulnerability to wildlife poachers and illegal hunters.

At first glance, it seems unlikely that animals would respond less to predators simply by becoming used to the presence of humans.

Prey species have sophisticated anti-predator abilities to assess their risk of attack. These inborn warning systems are the result of an evolutionary arms race, meaning that some animals respond to “ghosts” even after being isolated from predators for some time.

For instance, island populations of Sitka black-tailed deer isolated from predators for 60 years showed a similar level of vigilance to deer exposed to predators.

But there is some evidence that individuals that are bold around humans may also be bold around their predators. For instance, fox squirrels from a population habituated to human presence responded less to different predator noises than individuals from the non-habituated population.

Fox squirrels that are used to having humans around are less responsive to predators. Is this true for other species, too?
mandj98/flickr, CC BY-NC

Animals learn responses to their environment that can form predictable behavioural patterns. Such a pattern may, for example, link docility with a reduced response to predators. In this way, docile animals may respond inappropriately in the presence of a predator.

So if tourism-related human shields are sufficiently stable to make animals more tolerant towards humans, and if by being exposed to humans animals become more docile or excessively bold, these individuals may be more vulnerable when exposed to real predators.

What next?

Our paper is a call for more research on this important issue. Indeed, the journal we published in routinely publishes papers that seek to stimulate new work in this area and we listed a number of examples of needed studies in our review.

While UNESCO has guidelines for ecotourism, they do not address the issues we identified. We need to understand the factors and conditions under which human shields arise and their effects on wildlife behaviour. Armed with data from many species from different locations and studied under varied conditions, we will be better able to provide concrete management recommendations to wildlife managers.

Nevertheless, four such likely recommendations are to:

  • Create zones for governing visits in natural areas (as is done in many areas already, like the Galapagos).

  • Enforce times where natural areas are closed off to humans (as for hunting).

  • Avoid contact with humans in places where there are pups and juveniles (if, as we suspect, early contact with humans may enhance docility in wild animals).

  • Reduce or eliminate feeding of wildlife by tourist operators and guides (a common practice in a number of “ecotourist” venues).

To tour, or not to tour

So, is ecotourism a good thing or a bad thing? It depends.

In many developing countries, people must choose between consuming natural resources or creating another viable economy. Often, nature-based tourism and ecotourism creates unique economic opportunities. Here any increased predation costs of ecotourism will pale in comparison to the benefits this industry can bring.

However, when dealing with small and vulnerable populations, or when dealing with nature-based tourism in more developed countries, perhaps any excess predation is less acceptable.

We believe that ecotourists, who travel to help communities and biodiversity, will be those most open to self-regulation, if required, to better preserve local wildlife. We hope that the research our review stimulates will help provide the information and tools to improve the benefits of ecotourism, while eliminating or reducing the negative impacts. Time will tell and we’re excited to learn more.

The Conversation

Daniel Blumstein, Professor and chair for the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles; Benjamin Geffroy, Postdoctoral Fellow, Institut Nationale de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) – Université Paris Saclay; Diogo Samia, Postdoctoral Fellow, Universidade de Sao Paulo, and Eduardo Bessa, Professor of Zoology, Universidade do Estado de Mato Grosso

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Huge fires are burning northern Australia every year: it’s time to get them under control


Owen Price, University of Wollongong

On October 1, 2015 a fire lit to manage weeds at the Ranger Uranium Mine burned through 14,000 hectares of Kakadu National Park, threatening important rock-art sites and closing several tourist attractions.

The Northern Territory Government and Energy Resources of Australia (the mine operators) are conducting enquiries to work out what went wrong and how to prevent similar accidents in the future, because like all natural disasters each one is an opportunity to learn.

As it happens, this fire coincided with the publication this month of my research that helps us to understand the problem posed by unplanned fires in the savannas of northern Australia.

That research highlights a 60-day window between August 9 and October 7 each year when huge fires can occur and these contribute an inordinate amount to the total area burnt across the north.

Going up in smoke

Before August mild weather and moisture in the vegetation constrain fires. After October rain and high humidity do the same. Natural fires, caused by lightning, occur from November onwards, and although these account for more than 60% of unplanned fires started, they cause less than 10% of the total area burnt.

Rather, it is fires in the high risk window that are the real problem for fire management over a vast slab of Australia and they are neither natural nor planned.

My study used MODIS satellite mapping to examine the ignition date, duration and eventual size of 126,000 fires in Arnhem Land over a 10 year period. The largest fire ignited in late August 2004 and burned 445,000 hectares, 30 times the area burnt by the Ranger Mine or equivalent to a quarter of the size of Kakadu, our country’s largest national park.

But other regions have it worse: an accidental fire in the northern Tanami ignited on August 4 2011 burnt an area at least 5 million ha. There are 22 European countries smaller than that. So the Ranger Mine fire is in no way unique: it just happened to occur in a highly visible area.

Let’s take a step back and consider what is at stake with fires such as these. Research over many decades have shown that many species of fire-sensitive plants and animals are in decline across the north this is at least partially related to the loss of traditional burning practices which has led to an increase in fire frequency and a predominance of high-intensity late dry season fires (such as the Ranger Mine fire).

It is not certain whether high fire frequency or high fire intensity is the main problem, but it is probably a bit of both.

Stop fires starting

Managers of country such as Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land recognise this problem and have taken steps to wrest back control of the fire regime. Their main tool is the use of planned burning in the early dry season fires (April – July), akin to traditional burning practices.

By treating the land with a patchwork of these low intensity, low impact fires, subsequent fires can be prevented or constrained to protect sensitive areas. In some areas, including Kakadu and Western Arnhem Land, between 10% and 30% of the country is burnt each year by planned burns. This year 31% of Kakadu National Park had been treated in this way and this patchwork of burnt areas was the context in which the Ranger Mine fire started.

This approach has been successful at reducing the area burnt by unplanned late dry season fires, but it is only a partial fix. The Ranger Mine fire illustrates the main problem: that fires will burn around previously burnt patches.

This fire spread through a small gap between previous patches (at point A on the map below), enlarging its size five-fold. It is fair to say that the southern and western progress of the fire was contained by the planned burning. This protected Nourlangie Rock and Jabiru township and the fire could have been much larger without it.

The large fire that threatened Aboriginal heritage burned around previous burnoffs.
Owen Price, Author provided

The consequence of this “leaky” patchwork of protection is that early dry season burning on its own does not do much to reduce the overall area burnt. Rather it replaces high intensity late dry season fires with low intensity fires (which itself is a good thing).

This replacement phenomenon has been demonstrated
using fine scale fire mapping in Western Arnhem Land. My new study points out that if reducing fire frequency across the north is a goal (and it ought to be), then we need to place more focus on stopping fires starting in the main danger period (mid August to mid October).

Achieving substantial reduction in these ignitions is a huge challenge, and I don’t have any easy answers, but it would help if burn-offs such as the one that started the Ranger Mine fire were not allowed at this risky time of year.

The Conversation

Owen Price, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.