Climate change has become the hot-button issue in environmental policy over the previous decade. Environmental policy, however, encompasses so much more than debates over carbon emissions or rising sea levels. Wildlife conservation efforts face a complex web of challenges, from climate-induced changes like those threatening polar bears, to ecotourism. Many of these challenges are the result of government policy, whether it be an ill-conceived regulation or lack of enforcement. While policies allowing such things as deforestation or waste dumping are obvious dangers to wildlife, ecotourism can be surprisingly harmful.
In theory, ecotourism is a great tool to promote conservation in delicate, endangered ecosystems. Defined by the World Conservation Union, ecotourism is “environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.” In other words, allowing ordinary citizens to visit these natural locations to appreciate the beauty of nature while boosting the local economy and providing employment for local peoples.
In fact, the ecotourism industry may do more harm than good by distracting from more effective environmental protections, although it is certainly preferable to recreational hunting or poaching. However, simply allowing an influx of foreign tourists and wealth into sensitive ecological areas can cause serious degradation to the habitat and its inhabitants. According to Daniel Blumstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, “Recent data showed that protected areas around the globe receive 8 billion visitors per year; that’s like each human on Earth visited a protected area once a year, and then some. This massive amount of nature-based and eco-tourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change.” A lack of government policies to promote and regulate sustainable ecotourism is paramount to wildlife conservation as the industry of ecotourism grows from “a niche industry to a global cash cow.”
Take, for example, the case of the whale shark that makes its home off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico. This species is considered vulnerable, meaning that it is likely to become categorized as endangered. Approximately 1,500 sharks inhabit the Caribbean, and the gatherings off the Yucatan coast have been declining. Several factors may be contributing to this, including the lift on the ban on Cuban boats fishing in the shark’s territory as well as whale shark tourism.
The Direccion General de Vida Silvestre who in Mexico, is tasked with overseeing this aspect of tourism, issuing licenses to tourist boats. The number of licenses has grown dramatically, with nearly 320 issued this year. These boats cluster together to fight for the best whale shark spotting position. While there are regulations, such as the distance required between boat and animal, the number of snorkelers per boat allowed in the water, and length of time spent within the water, there are no enforcement mechanisms. As a result, the waters are overcrowded, the animals are injured or killed by the boats, and their feeding patterns are disrupted.
Whale sharks are not the only animals put at risk by ecotourism. Such constant regular contact with humans can have another, less obvious risk than diminishing food supplies. In practice, ecotourism acts similarly to domestication of wild species. Researchers at UCLA argue that:
“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. Even a small human-induced perturbation could affect the behavior or population biology of a species and influence the species’ function in its community.”
Repeated benign interaction with humans embolden animals, making them less fearful. This is obvious to anyone walking through any major city: the squirrels and pigeons who call them home are almost unflappable, allowing pedestrians to approach close enough to touch them. This is bad news for both prey and predators: prey are more likely to pay the price for their boldness, while predators find it difficult to permeate the safe haven created for prey by human bystanders.
While the dangers are not as obvious to the common observer, ecotourism can pose serious risk to fragile ecosystems. The countries in which these habitats exist have done little to regulate the industry, instead capitalizing on its explosive popularity. While this type of tourism can have great economic impact on local economies, it can also breed exploitation. In addition, lack of regulation and enforcement that does not promote sustainability simply sets the industry up for failure; as the environment this industry relies on diminishes, it will be unable to survive.
Governments need to assist wildlife conservation efforts by establishing comprehensive rules for those involved in ecotourism and most importantly, be able to implement these rules. It is vital to the survival of the world’s species and to the people who rely on them.
Beth Bickerton is a graduate of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, holding a degree in International Relations and French. She has previously worked in both nonprofit and governmental organizations, including the United States Supreme Court and the Social Science Research Council. Her interests include the European Union, human rights, and wildlife conservation.
Cover Image: Starley Shelton under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license