Does Wildlife Tourism
Contribute to Animal Conservation?

- The basic principles -

Wildlife Tourism & Ecotourism

In the last few decades, wildlife tourism and ecotourism has increased worldwide. This is great news, but it also influences animal conservation and puts pressure on certain wildlife. Ecotourism was mostly seen as a development of developing countries. With its rapid growth, it’s starting to be an international business. Ecotourism is described by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and provides the well-being of local people. The main focus goes to minimize the impact (both environmentally & culturally), educate and create awareness, and provide financial benefits for local people and future conservation. Ecotourism is often considered to contribute to local employment and offers benefits to active (wildlife) conservation compared to other possible land use, for example, logging, commercial fishing, soil extraction and farming. But due to its own growing success, ecotourism & wildlife tourism put pressure on wildlife and may overuse natural resources. In this review, I will focus on the effects of ecotourism on wildlife (Wildlife Tourism), which is often described as the wildlife watching part. Of course, I cannot deny the social aspects and I will include it in this review to have an overall view of the impacts of ecotourism on wildlife and the local society. This review will end with some management perspectives and the role of wildlife tourism.

Wildlife Tourism review

But due to its own growing success, ecotourism & wildlife tourism puts pressure on wildlife and may overuse natural resources. In this review, I will focus on the effects of ecotourism on wildlife (Wildlife Tourism), which is often described as the wildlife watching part. Of course, I cannot deny the social aspects and I will include it in this review to have an overall view of the impacts of ecotourism on wildlife and the local society. This review will end with some management perspectives and the role of wildlife tourism. Furthermore, you can read more about my experience in Botswana where one of my tasks was to interview tourists and check how they are experiencing their wildlife trip.

Wildlife watching

To understand the impacts of wildlife watching within ecotourism (Wildlife tourism) on wildlife, it is necessary to get a notion of what people expect from a wildlife watching tour. The key elements of memorable wildlife encounters can be quantified in a few different categories: charismatic animals, appearance in large numbers (both mass & diversity), first time sighting by the observer, the level of surprise, the drama of nature (prey-predator interactions), and close proximity. So, it is clear that there is a need for close sightings and therefore there is a need to make wildlife ‘viewable’.

Close proximity sightings will raise responses of animals and will have an influence on their behaviour. This response varies between different species and between different life-stages within an animal. The responses can range from avoidance, to habituation (acceptance), and attraction. Habituation and attraction are used to get wild animals accepting the presence of humans.

cheeta animal conservation
Photo © Jerzy Strzelecki

Avoidance

In general, most wildlife will avoid people by using antipredator adaptations. This is based on historical hunting, where humans killed all kind of animals. In contrary, wildlife tourism tours are trying to make wildlife viewable. This behaviour gives the animals less time to forage, rest, and breed. Furthermore, animals can be pushed away from preferred habitat when tourists are around, or disturbed during prey capture. Wildlife reacts differently according to the way they are approached, for example, kangaroos fled more often when approached by foot than by vehicle. Spotlighting can cause delayed emergence time by nocturnal marsupials. Overall this is reducing the quality and quantity of food consumed, but if a particular route is used frequently by humans, habituation is found in several species.

Presence of wildlife tourism can introduce stress to wildlife. Besides viewable stress in animal behaviour like running away, wildlife may experience stress without any behavioural signs of disturbance of the animal itself. This can be recorded as an increase in breathing and heart rate. According to research, stress levels of wolves and elk increased when approached by tourists on snowmobiles. Ultimately, stress can reduce immunity to diseases. Human introduced diseases is another treat for wildlife, whereas the transfer of diseases from human to apes is one of the biggest threats.
However, stress has not (yet) been shown to have population-level consequences in large mammals, such impacts have been observed in a range of penguin species.

Habituation & attraction

Wildlife watching organisations preferably want to increase the success of their tours (see target animal(s)), which can be done by habituation and attraction. The difference between these two can be found in the timescale. Habituation is a slow process, as in different years, whereas attraction drastically makes this process faster. Mostly food is used to attract animals.

    Habituation
Habituation is “a waning of response to some repeated, neutral stimuli”, here human presence. After a long time, wildlife will tolerate a human presence by reducing or neutralizing flight reactions. Habituation is also used in research, mostly primates. For example, Dr. Dian Fossey’s successful research on habituating mountain gorilla’s made wildlife tourism possible, although she was very critical about it. The decrease in human avoidance can create a place where some wildlife benefits from less predation pressure or intra-specific risk avoidance, which in the end can lead to effects on the composition and functioning of the entire ecosystem.

    Attraction
An additional way to reduce the uncertainty of locating and watching wildlife is to attract animals. Mostly, wildlife is attracted to specific places where they are good watchable. This can be done by putting out carcasses or using (artificial) water holes. In the first case, animals will associate humans with food and will be positively attracted to them. Tourist lodges have been built up close to this attraction facilities to have the most excellent view. Some animals develop a dependency of being fed and lose their ability to behave naturally. Some wildlife will spend more time foraging around garbage bins and campgrounds, which leads to an increase in human-wildlife interactions and animals may start to stalk people. These last ones sometimes become assertive and dangerous. Supplemental feeding has the potential to manipulate foraging behaviour and will expand the distribution of some species, where assertive individuals or species are favoured.

Interference with sensitive periods

The breeding period is one of the most sensitive times for wildlife, whereas this is the desirable moment for wildlife watchers. This can lead to a potential negative impact on different groups of animals by wildlife tourism. Most of the evidence is found in marine bird species, where parent birds are distracted during their breeding season. Tourist visits will decrease the time for parental care and can cause an increase in offspring predation and lower hatching rates of eggs, which can be linked to a decline in reproductive success. Besides birds, there is evidence of interference with the reproductive success of different reptiles. Not much is known about the effect of tourists on terrestrial mammals, due to a lack of long-term studies. Although there tends to be a greater risk of disturbance by humans in bears when they have cubs. However, if tourism disturbance persists or occurs frequently, changes in behaviour may result in long-term effects on survival and reproduction.

Animal conservation penguin

Animal Conservation:
Management issues

Besides all these negative impacts on animals, there are some positive impacts of wildlife tourism which can be summarized in four categories. First, there is a direct wildlife management and a support for research. Secondly, there are some finances for (wildlife) conservation. Thirdly, there are socio-economical benefits to operators and the host community, and fourthly, this kind of tourism educate visitors and hopefully will create some kind of awareness.

Animal conservation management plan

In order to diminish these negative impacts on wildlife, there are some management strategies. Proper management is the key to a successful ecotourism business, but for the moment there is a lack of guidelines and regulations to do so. These guidelines need strict objectives and goals, which can be evaluated with indicators and standards. Indicators are variables that are considered to reflect the condition of specified components of the system under management and can be physically measured, whereas standards are specified ranges for conditions or values that are considered to be acceptable. For example, ‘number of visitors visiting a beaver site’ is an indicator and the standard might be up to 85-100 % of beaver excursions visiting this main beaver site (zoning: disturbing one beaver site). New management actions are set and in order to reach these goals, an appropriate monitoring program is needed. There are some direct strategies to implement in management, such as limiting the total numbers of visitors to an area, dispersing visitors, zoning, using fixed viewing points, and setting guidelines for minimum viewing distances. To decrease the stress of different animals, it is important to maintain refuge areas and a banning of off-road driving. In order to do so, management of wildlife tourism businesses can concentrate on already disturbed areas, for example around ruins (tourist attractions).

Not only the way of approach is important, the human behaviour when approaching may not be underestimated. This behaviour includes talking, leaning outside the window, colour of clothes worn by the visitors, etc… In some areas, there is still a need for educational programs about how to behave around (endangered) wildlife.

To make this guidelines and regulations, there is a need for scientific research, where there is a huge lack of long-term behavioural studies of terrestrial animals. Further research needs to focus on the relationship between short- and long-term impacts, sensitive periods for wildlife, the effect on the total communities rather than focussing on species and individuals (include the effect on non-target species), evaluate indicators, and conditions for sustainable ecotourism with successful local participation. Some parts of the world are already further in setting up guidelines and regulations, for instance in Kenya there is already a ban on sport hunting and in South Africa, a lot of reserves are fenced. Asia and South America tend to have a less sustainable wildlife tourism, which is correlated with a lack of regulations and guidelines. Wildlife watching is becoming more and more important in Asia and the same trend in North America, away from hunting towards wildlife watching.

As if wildlife tourism sometimes need to compete with poaching, hunting, illegal and uncontrolled felling, benefiting local people is a key factor for good management and conservation in order to avoid them becoming poachers themselves.

Conclusion

One thing is for sure, the world needs wildlife tourism, but that won’t work without wildlife. Although not all of the impacts are exclusively due to wildlife watching and the wildlife tourism business. The negative impact of wildlife watching in ecotourism on wildlife is affected by the frequency, intensity, distance between people and wildlife, time in their life-cycle, and different stimuli (sound, light, food, etc.). At the moment, it is not clear if these impacts on terrestrial wildlife are just on an individual scale or on the population level. However, in birds and reptiles, there is evidence of changing population dynamics. Such population effects are particularly important when threatened species are involved, and even stress to individual animals can be of conservation concern in areas holding the last populations of endangered. Ecotourism has a great potential to be sustainable and can contribute to (wildlife) conservation if done in an appropriate way. Indicators are very useful to evaluate management and need the be used more. It is important to set up guidelines and regulations in order to minimize the impact on wildlife. Here, awareness and education of tourists, as well as local people on how to behave is one of the key factors. In the end, most of it comes down to more research on all of these topics regarding the animal disturbance.

This being said, it’s both the responsibility of tour operators and clients to enjoy wildlife sightings, but take into account all the potential effects we could have and try to minimize them. Also, check out this article from Responsible Travel about wildlife tourism to save endangered species. If you are going on a ‘wildlife tourism trip’, make sure to do research on activities and companies that are not harming the animals (National Geographic: Visitors Can’t Tell If a Tourist Attraction Is Bad for Animals).

I wrote this essay during my time at the Grimsö Research Station taking the course Wildlife Biology (2012). I was, and still am, very interested in wildlife ecotourism and how it can contribute to the conservation of species. I adjusted a couple of things and left out the reference list. In case of interest, feel free to get in touch.

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Check out my blogs about volunteering with Operation Wallacea (Mexico & Honduras).

Make sure to check out these wildlife tourism related books of you are planning to explore more of nature’s wildlife.

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