is stressing animals to death: science report
Marh 06, 2004
Ecotourism is a booming business, but it could
be devastating to the flora and fauna it aims
to protect, New Scientist reports in its Saturday
Worried biologists have warned that wild animals
are manifesting signs of extreme stress when
they come into contact with humans.
"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 British journal
Heart rates increase, reproduction decreases
and hormones go awry with contact, made ever
more frequent by the growing numbers of holiday
adventurers flocking to remote, biodiverse areas.
Bottlenosed dolphins along New Zealand's coast
became frenetic around tourist boats, resting
for as little as 0.5 percent of the time when
three or more boats are close, compared with
68 percent of the time in the presence of a
single research boat, researchers who have studied
them since 1996 found.
Polar bears who should be resting during chilly
October and November months in Manitoba, Canada,
ahead of their seal-hunting season, have also
been made anxious by humans.
University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, researchers
Markus Dyck and Richard Baydack said signs of
vigilance among male bears increased nearly
sevenfold when tourists were around, adding
that it could use up their energy, thereby reducing
essential body fat, with potential long-term
consequences on breeding.
One vehicle is all it takes to set the bears
on edge, they said.
Among the baby yellow-eyed penguins of New
Zealand's Otago peninsula, researchers frequently
found more than a 10-percent drop in weight
for chicks in areas frequented by tourists.
Philip Seddon of the country's University of
Otago said this could be the result of parents
taking longer to reach chicks after foraging
"Penguins will run back into the sea if
approached on the beach, and will wait beyond
the breakers until a beach is clear," he
told New Scientist.
Underweight baby penguins were less likely
to survive, he said, adding that tourists coming
to see the flightless birds could bring about
the end of their colony.
From polar caps to steamy jungles, ecotourism
has had a major impact on local economies and
The industry promotes an up-close view of nature
and a host of outdoor activities, while encouraging
sustainable and environmentally-sensitive development.
It has grown at what New Scientist reported
is an annual 10- to 30-percent rate to become
a billion-dollar industry which in 1998 attracted
nearly nine million people in 87 nations and
Even the United Nations has gotten behind the
business, as when it dubbed 2002 the year of
But apart from a few notable exceptions, ecotourist
projects are unaudited, unaccredited and promise
environmental responsibility without actually
having to prove it.
Mostly they follow more basic guidelines concerning
land use, cutting down trees and kindly trying
not to scare the animals, the British journal
Even carefully controlled ecotourism often
makes itself felt. As Seddon told New Scientist:
"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."
In the Amazon rainforest, a colorful bird called
the hoatzin was studied by Antje Müllner
of Germany's Frankfurt Zoological Society and
Martin Wikelski of Princeton University.
In tourist-visited areas in the Cuyabeno reserve
of Ecuador, only 15 percent of hoatzin nests
contained an egg, compared with 50 percent in
Young hoatzins had double the levels of the
stress hormone corticosterone than those in
tourist-free areas. By placing microphones in
their nests, researchers discovered that while
the birds did not flee at human contact, their
heart rates soared.
Ecotourism is an excellent resource for biodiverse
developing nations, but biologists are calling
for precise pre-studies such as theses before
setting up business, the journal says.
"Pre-tourism data should always be collected,
where possible," Rochelle Constantine,
who studied New Zealand's dolphins, says.
"The animals' welfare should be paramount
because without them there will be no ecotourism."