Impact of ecotourism on wildlife demands a thorough investigation, ecologist argues | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Impact of ecotourism on wildlife demands a thorough investigation, ecologist argues Brazilian expert highlights problems such as rising animal mortality due to fishing, hunting, collisions with land vehicles and boats, and even fatal accidents caused by boat propellers (photo: Sapajus flavius / CPB/ICMBio archive)

Impact of ecotourism on wildlife demands a thorough investigation, ecologist argues

January 24, 2018

By Karina Toledo  |  Agência FAPESP – Ecotourism is usually considered a sustainable way to use a country’s natural resources while conserving the integrity of its ecosystems, generating income for local communities and helping to protect wildlife. 

However, in the opinion of ecologist Helena de Godoy Bergallo, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) in Brazil, ecotourism can have significant effects on wildlife, requiring a better understanding by scientists and mitigation through more effective management.

The subject was discussed during the "Workshop on Research Applied to Wildlife Management" held in São Paulo on November 23, 2017, by the steering committee of the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP). According to the organizers, the aim of the event was to encourage the application of good science to enhance wildlife management and engage the academic community and other sectors of society in this debate.

“We’re well aware of the observable direct impact of ecotourism, but we don’t know the size of the problem,” Bergallo said. “What effect can the death of some animals have on the overall population of the species and the entire ecosystem? The scale of impact acceptability is typically based on aesthetic rather than scientific reasons. More research is needed.”

Among the problems cited by Bergallo was the rise in animal mortality rates due to fishing, hunting, and collisions with road and river vehicles. Manatees are often fatally injured or killed by boat propellers, for example. 

In addition, she mentioned alterations to habitats and plant composition due to the construction of ecolodges, restaurants and other kinds of infrastructure required to receive visitors. “When a lot of people trample on vegetation as they follow a trail, the soil is compacted, and plants are modified,” she said. “Native species may be lost, invader species can proliferate, and flowering and fruiting diminish. Waves created by boats may lead to salt intrusion into communities that cannot tolerate this mineral.”

Animals’ feeding and foraging habits are often distorted because tourists offer food and tour organizers use bait to attract species like the pink river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), for example. A few individuals are held in captivity for visitors to have closer contact with wildlife.

Other kinds of impact of which humans may be unaware, Rossi noted, include artificial lighting and noise from boats, aircraft and land vehicles. 

“People love watching cetaceans surfing alongside their boat, but actually, the animals are stressed by all the noise,” she said. “Other examples include the giant river otter [Pteronura brasiliensis], which is disturbed by boats at feeding times in Peru, and the western spadefoot toad [Spea hammondii], a fossorial amphibian lured out of its burrow by noise from vehicles, probably because their pounding resembles the sound of heavy rain.” 

Among the consequences noted by Bergallo were migration of species that cannot tolerate the presence of humans, less time for foraging and higher energy expenditure because of the time spent fleeing humans, and aberrant social behavior such as aggressiveness among individuals of the same species or fighting over food offered by humans. Some species become more vulnerable to competitors and predators, while others abandon offspring or suffer disturbances to mating patterns.

“We know that small populations that reproduce slowly and rare species are the most affected,” Bergallo said. “But little research has been done on the link between the impact on certain individuals and the effect on an entire population. We also need studies that help evaluate the support capacity of different ecosystems so that it’s possible to set a ceiling on the number of visitors to these places.”

Ecotourism has limited potential to contribute to biodiversity conservation, she stressed. It can provide genuine benefits only with good management and better regulation.

“Brazilian legislation and the National Tourism Plan don’t regulate ecotourism specifically. We need to think about implementing ethical standards like those used by birdwatchers,” she said. 

Knowledge gaps

According to Luciano Verdade, a member of BIOTA-FAPESP’s steering committee and a researcher at the University of São Paulo’s Center for Nuclear Energy in Agriculture (CENA-USP), another aim of the workshop held at FAPESP’s headquarters was to foster interaction between scientific research that can be applied to wildlife management and the various demands emanating from society.

“Brazil has an excessively conservative public policy as far as wildlife governance is concerned,” Verdade said. “The philosophy is, ‘Ban everything and treat all species as endangered’. However, there are many other demands regarding wildlife besides protection as such. There are animals that live in conflict with agriculture, forestry, or even public health. On the other hand, there are others that can generate wealth and social inclusion if used in a biologically sustainable way. It’s a complex web.”

Verdade also stressed the need to develop monitoring projects that enable early and efficient detection of changes in the state of wild animal populations.

“This process [good wildlife management] may be limited when we don’t know for sure what to do for lack of a conceptual basis,” he said. “There are times when we know what to do but lack the wherewithal, the technology to help us know how to do it. So innovation should be stimulated. There are also situations in which we know what to do and how to do it but not where, when and with whom. In this case, what’s lacking is a governance structure. Today, we’re trying to contribute to a clearer perception of what limits us.”

According to Carlos Alfredo Joly, also a member of BIOTA-FAPESP’s steering committee, the debate can help define themes of future calls for proposals to be launched by the program.

“BIOTA usually issues two calls per year, apart from those launched jointly with partners in Brazil and abroad. The themes arise from these discussions with the scientific community,” said Joly, a professor at the University of Campinas’s Biology Institute (IB-UNICAMP) in São Paulo State, Brazil.

In addition to the impacts of ecotourism, the workshop also discussed the management of invader species such as the wild boar (Sus scrofa). According to Virgínia Santiago, a researcher at the Swine & Poultry division of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), the boar population has grown sharply since the 1990s and competes for resources with native species. The health risks associated with this phenomenon remain unknown.

Walfrido Moraes Tomas, a researcher at EMBRAPA Pantanal’s Wildlife Laboratory, noted that Brazil’s anti-hunting law is now 50 years old. The law permits hunting for subsistence only, yet the activity has existed throughout the country since humans arrived and is still ubiquitous despite the legal ban.

“We’ve failed to avoid uncontrolled hunting, and we know nothing about its effects on populations,” Tomas said. “There are no official numbers. Because of the ban on hunting, academia has no courses designed to lead to specific careers in wildlife management, and no demand has been created for professionals with this profile. As a result, no scientific foundation has been built that could be used for decision-making support.”

Mauro Galetti, a professor in the Ecology Department of São Paulo State University (UNESP) in Rio Claro, spoke about how defaunation can make climate change worse. The reduction in populations of large-body frugivores (the only animals capable of dispersing larger seeds) in tropical forests leads to the replacement of hardwood trees by species with lower capacity for carbon storage, he said. 

Biologist Cláudia Schalmann, a researcher with the São Paulo State Environmental Corporation (CETESB), addressed issues relating to wildlife in the environmental licensing processes for projects in the state, highlighting the importance of impact-mitigating measures including preventing domestic animals from entering green areas, maintaining connections between forest fragments on farms or housing estates and their environs, and implementing wildlife road crossings such as underpasses or viaducts, among others.

Endangered species management was the focus for a presentation by Marcio Martins, a professor in the Ecology Department of the University of São Paulo’s Bioscience Institute (IB-USP). Martins explained the methodology used to produce the Red List of Endangered Brazilian Fauna, published by the Chico Mendes Institute for Nature Conservation (ICMBio), an arm of Brazil’s Environment Ministry.




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