Researchers warn that ecotourism may be putting wildlife at risk by changing animals’ behaviours and responses to threats.
Animals that become accustomed to large numbers of visitors will likely lose some of their instinct for self preservation, US experts say. The effect this has on wildlife may leave them more at the mercy of predators.
Lead researcher Dr Daniel Blumstein, from the University of California at Los Angeles, said that when animals interact in ‘benign’ ways with humans, they may let down their guard.
“As animals get used to feeling comfortable with humans nearby, they may become bolder in other situations,” he explained.
“If this boldness transfers to real predators then they will suffer higher mortality when they encounter real predators.”
The growing popularity of ecotourism is becoming more of a concern, with protected areas around the world receiving eight billion visitors a year, the team reported.
“This massive amount of nature-based ecotourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change,” said Dr. Blumstein.
Writing in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, the researchers compare the effects of ecotourism with that of animal domestication and urbanization, and found that interactions between people and animals could lead to habituation – described as “a kind of taming”.
The scientists also questioned what might happen to these animals when the visitors leave.
“If individuals selectively habituate to humans – particularly tourists – and if invasive tourism practices enhance this habituation, we might be selecting for or creating traits or syndromes that have unintended consequences, such as increased predation risk,” the researchers wrote.
“Even a small human-induced perturbation could affect the behaviour or population biology of a species and influence the species’ function in its community.”