If You Want to Protect Nature, Stay Away: The Hidden Dangers of Ecotourism

October 15, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Giraffes being fed by tourists in cars at a safari
Photo credit: Robek/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.5)

Ecotourism is marketed as a sustainable way to admire nature, but it actually causes a host of problems for the ecosystems it aims to preserve.

Instead of bustling cities or flashy monuments, ecotourists choose destinations where the flora and fauna are the main attraction, where they can reconnect with nature and support conservation efforts. While ecotourism has flourished into a large sector of the tourism industry, the phenomenon has attracted a lot of criticism over its actual effects on the environment, both seen and unseen.

For one, ecotourists to leave their destinations as pristine as they found them. While feasting their eyes on their verdant surroundings and snapping photos on their phones, tourists may inadvertently trample a rare plant or insect. And you might think that ecotourists who pride themselves on appreciating nature would make sure to throw away their garbage, but popular ecological destinations often begin to resemble human habitats in terms of litter and pollution. Popular tourist sites experience erosion on trails, excess runoff from parking lots, and filth radiating from poorly maintained latrines.

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The most striking case of ecotourism gone awry can be found in the Galapagos Islands. Although the past few decades of booming tourism have brought crucial revenues to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, the original paradise is now unrecognizable under the crowds of people, traffic, hotels, and pollution. The growing economy has also attracted more immigrants, ballooning the population beyond the islands’ capacity for resources and infrastructure.

Increased traffic and migration among the islands has also subjected the native ecosystems to a huge influx of invasive species. Rats, fire ants, and blackberries are some of the worst offenders. The nastiest invader has to be the maggot of the Philomis downsi fly, which works its way into the nasal cavities of Darwin’s finch fledglings and ravages their brains.

The direct interactions between ecotourists and their objects of admiration are also having an insidious effect. In the same way that zoo animals get stressed from constant scrutiny, animals living in wildlife reserves are disrupted from their daily lives. A study on Megellanic penguins in Punta Tombo Argentina found that the tens of thousands of visitors who come every fall to coo over the chicks are inducing stress much earlier than usual in the penguins’ lives.

Overly eager visitors are also rapidly warping wildlife behavior. While ecotourists delight in unnaturally friendly animals, these animals would be better off if they maintained their skittish manners. The so-called Stingray City sandbar in the Cayman Islands is famous for giving visitors the opportunity to feed and pet its stingrays. As a result, the stingrays have almost become domesticated; they have switched to coming out during daytime in anticipation of food, rather than foraging at night. They also crowd together in closer quarters than usual, resulting in year-round mating no longer limited to a specific season as well as unnatural aggression.

This taming effect puts animals in danger of losing the instincts that protect them. As animals become more comfortable with the presence of humans, they lower their guard and stop reacting fearfully to natural predators. For example, vervet monkeys experience a false sense of security when humans are around to scare off leopards. But their complacency continues after the humans go away, leaving the monkeys more vulnerable to attack. Every time you see an astonishingly close photo of a zebra, keep in mind that its relaxed manner with human photographers might cost it its life in the next lion attack.

While the spirit of ecotourism fosters awareness for environmental concerns, the consequences, both immediate and long-term, still outweigh the benefits. No matter how much you’d like to watch animals in their natural habitats, they really don’t appreciate your company.

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