The aim of ecotourism is to help fund conservation efforts or boost local economies, but new research suggests it could actually do more harm than good.
A new study warns the growing industry of ecotourism could have harmful effects on wild animals, the University of California, Los Angeles reported. Ecotourism often includes activities that bring humans and wildlife close together, such as when tourists swim with marine mammals.
"This massive amount of nature-based and ecotourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change," said Daniel Blumstein, the study's senior author and professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA.
To make their findings, the researchers looked at over 100 studies that looked at the relationship between ecotourism and wild animals. They found the presence of humans can change the way animals behave, potentially making them more vulnerable to poachers and other dangers. As animals start to relax in the presence of humans, they let their guard down, and may even become bolder in times of danger. The presence of humans can also discourage natural predators, giving smaller animals more of a free reign. The studies included in the analysis outlined phenomena such as silver foxes becoming more "tame" from human interaction, and domesticated fish becoming less responsive to predatory attacks.
"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 behavior or population biology of a species and influence the species' function in its community."
The researchers hope their study will encourage additional research into the effects of ecotourism on wildlife, and will lead to a better understanding of the potentially dangerous relationship.
The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.