Every year 12 million trips are organised to see animals in the wild, either on safaris or sighting trips.
Responsible management of these tourist activities may help survival of the animals and the conservation of the species. The main benefits of animal safaris or sighting trips include, protecting habitat; funding conservation projects (through donations, taxes or park entrance fees); job creation for local population; and the creation of educational material referring to the need to protect wildlife.
Viewing animals in their habitat may bring a greater profit than using these animals in another context. For example, watching turtle nests generates three times more income than those earned through the sale and consumption of the same animals, and involves the creation of places of work for many more people.
Seeing species in their natural habitat is the necessary ethical alternative to watching animals in centres of captivity (zoos, circuses, etc).
However, this type of tourism also has adverse effects. The sightings may cause behavioural and psychological changes in the animals and may even affect their natural habitat. There are also risks related to the expansion and growth of the destination, as it becomes more well-known and touristy.
The animals affected may spend less time feeding or resting and use more energy trying to escape or hide. In some cases, they may search for refuge in areas with less variety of food or inhabited by a greater number of predators.
Many species are particularly sensitive when they are breeding or in the first stages of life. Scaring or interrupting animals during the mating season, or the females when they are feeding their young, may have serious consequences for the animals and also for species conservation.
Psychological changes or changes in the blood chemistry may also take place, such as an increase in stress hormones, especially in the case of animals fed by tourists. It is especially important and we should keep in mind that some species, such as the great apes, may contract human diseases against which they have no defences.
The animals’ natural habitats may get damaged. A clear example of this is shown by the coral reefs of areas which are regularly visited by inexperienced divers. Coral breakages also end the lives of many organisms and reduce the habitat in which fish spawn or feed.
Uncontrolled expansion of tourism and waste generated by those tourists also poses a potential risk for the survival of local wildlife. Even the infrastructure (hotels, hostels, etc.) may mean danger for some species, the development of tourism in the coastal areas of some countries is still causing a serious impact on turtles and their nests. This highlights the need for very careful planning which protects fauna from the side effects of tourist development.
Lastly, we shouldn’t forget that there are still some operators who pursue animals causing them unnecessary stress. This is dangerous because it changes their behaviour (social, hunting, fleeing, feeding, breeding, the hours it keeps, and rest periods) and life cycles (hibernation), causing the break up of groups, mothers of young or provoking mortal accidents with the vehicles used by the tourists. Therefore the animals and the survival of the species are endangered in the long term.
We should bear in mind that relatively little is known about the biology of the animals which are usually observed in the sightings and the effects that tourism may have on them.
The codes of good practice are usually based on an attempt to minimise the visible signs of stress the animals may suffer, but true understanding of the long term effects of the tourism of wildlife watching is still quite limited. For example, it is starting to become clear that the repercussions on “closely related” species can be very different. Such is the case of Lions and Cheetahs, who have biological and behavioural differences. As a result the codes of good practice for watching one species cannot be applied automatically to another species of the same group. These ideas need to be investigated further and more detailed studies should be carried out to better understand the consequences.
The countries of destination, the tourist operators and the tourists should all take the appropriate measures so that these activities may be carried out without endangering wildlife.
A couple of examples which may illustrate guidelines for good practices are:
At the state level
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Responsible Tourism with Animals