Human tourism—no matter how well-intentioned—might desensitize wild animals to poachers and predators, affecting their odds of survival. Christopher Intagliata reports
Wilderness protected areas get eight billion visitors a year. And that's just on land. Underwater reserves add millions more to the tally. Which, considering these are "protected" areas, seems like an insane number of people.
"It is insane." Dan Blumstein, a behavioral and conservation biologist at U.C.L.A. "Now remember some of these might be local parks. But a lot of people are going and seeking out natural areas annually around the world. And therefore the potential impact of this can be quite large."
And the potential impact, to put it bluntly: "you know, does ecotourism make animals dumb?" Or, in other words: could our presence disrupt and change the instincts of wild animals, and ultimately, affect their survival? Blumstein and his colleagues surveyed literature on human-wildlife interactions all over the world, from chimpanzee ecotourism in Uganda, to elk and antelope gawking in the Grand Tetons. And they concluded that human tourism—no matter how well intentioned—might desensitize animals. Making them easier prey for poachers and predators.
A couple of mechanisms could be in play. There's what's called the "human shield" effect—predators are less likely to pounce when humans are around, making prey less vigilant, even after we leave. Or we might simply habituate prey to large noisy animals—like us—and thus render them more susceptible to predators later.
"It does seem that we may be, inadvertently or advertently, domesticating animals through tourism and wildlife tourism and ecotourism." The review is in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. [Geffroy et al, How Nature-Based Tourism Might Increase Prey Vulnerability to Predators (link to come)]
Now this paper isn't direct proof that tourism is actually desensitizing animals—it’s just a theory at this point. "What we have is we have all the pieces of the puzzle sort of lining up, and we articulate a pathway by which this could be an issue. Is it, and under what conditions? We don't know, and our paper really is a rallying cry for more research on the topic." Research that will hopefully give land managers the tools they need to convince us humans not to love the world's wildlife to death.
-- Christopher Intagliata
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]