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Massive growth of ecotourism worries biologists

Something weird is happening in the wilderness. The animals are becoming restless. Polar bears and penguins, dolphins and dingoes, even birds in the rainforest are becoming stressed. They are losing weight, with some dying as a result. The cause is a pursuit intended to have the opposite effect: ecotourism.

The massive growth of the ecotourist industry has biologists worried. Evidence is growing that many animals do not react well to tourists in their backyard. The immediate effects can be subtle – changes to an animal’s heart rate, physiology, stress hormone levels and social behaviour, for example – but in the long term the impact tourists are having could endanger the survival of the very wildlife they want to see.

Ecotourism has clear benefits. Poor countries that are rich in biodiversity benefit from the money tourists bring in, supposedly without damaging the environment. “Ecotourism is an alternative activity to overuse of natural resources,” says Geoffrey Howard of the East Africa office of IUCN (the World Conservation Union) in Nairobi, Kenya. “Many of our projects encourage ecotourism so that rural people can make a living out of something apart from using too much of the forests or fisheries or wetlands.”

But while the IUCN and other organisations, and governments of nations such as New Zealand and Australia, try to ensure that their projects are ecologically viable, many ecotourist projects are unaudited, unaccredited and merely hint they are based on environmentally friendly policies and operations. The guidelines that do exist mostly address the obvious issues such as changes in land use, cutting down trees, making tracks, or scaring wildlife.
Something weird is happening in the wilderness. The animals are becoming restless. Polar bears and penguins, dolphins and dingoes, even birds in the rainforest are becoming stressed. They are losing weight, with some dying as a result. The cause is a pursuit intended to have the opposite effect: ecotourism.

The massive growth of the ecotourist industry has biologists worried. Evidence is growing that many animals do not react well to tourists in their backyard. The immediate effects can be subtle – changes to an animal’s heart rate, physiology, stress hormone levels and social behaviour, for example – but in the long term the impact tourists are having could endanger the survival of the very wildlife they want to see.

Ecotourism has clear benefits. Poor countries that are rich in biodiversity benefit from the money tourists bring in, supposedly without damaging the environment. “Ecotourism is an alternative activity to overuse of natural resources,” says Geoffrey Howard of the East Africa office of IUCN (the World Conservation Union) in Nairobi, Kenya. “Many of our projects encourage ecotourism so that rural people can make a living out of something apart from using too much of the forests or fisheries or wetlands.”

But while the IUCN and other organisations, and governments of nations such as New Zealand and Australia, try to ensure that their projects are ecologically viable, many ecotourist projects are unaudited, unaccredited and merely hint they are based on environmentally friendly policies and operations. The guidelines that do exist mostly address the obvious issues such as changes in land use, cutting down trees, making tracks, or scaring wildlife.

Increased stress
What is not considered are less obvious impacts. “Transmission of disease to wildlife, or subtle changes to wildlife health through disturbance of daily routines or increased stress levels, while not apparent to a casual observer, may translate to lowered survival and breeding,” says Philip Seddon of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

For instance, Rochelle Constantine of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and her colleagues have been monitoring schools of bottlenose dolphins along the country’s north-eastern coast since 1996. In an upcoming paper in Biological Conservation, they report that the dolphins become increasingly frenetic when tourist boats are present. They rest for as little as 0.5 per cent of the time when three or more boats are close, compared with 68 per cent of the time in the presence of a single research boat.

Such changes in behaviour “are potentially serious for the population”, says Gordon Hastie, a marine mammal expert at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

Hastie and his team have found that dolphins in the Moray Firth in Scotland spend significantly more time surfacing synchronously in the presence of boats than they do otherwise (Marine Mammal Science, vol 19, p 74). This could lead to the animals resting more at night, possibly reducing the time they spend socialising and foraging.

This article is quoted from New Scientist . Follow the link to reed the entire article written by Anil Ananthaswamy and originally published Marts 2004.

This article is uploaded by Majbritt Thomsen, administrator on ‘Views On Tourism’.

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