THE boom in trendy eco-tourism may be putting wildlife at risk by changing the behaviour of the creatures tourists flock to see as they become used to the presence of man, researchers have warned.
Wild animals that become accustomed to large numbers of visitors are likely to lose some of their instinct for self-preservation, experts in the United States said.
The “taming” effect is said to run the risk of leaving the animals, many of which are endangered, more at the mercy of their natural predators.
Lead researcher Dr Daniel Blumstein, from the University of California in Los Angeles, said: “When animals interact in ‘benign’ ways with humans, they may let down their guard. As animals get used to feeling comfortable with humans nearby, they may become bolder in other situations.
“If this boldness transfers, then they will suffer higher mortality when they encounter real predators.”
Eco-tourism is booming, with protected areas around the world receiving eight billion visitors a year, he said.
“This massive amount of nature-based eco-tourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change,” Dr Blumstein added.
Writing in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, the researchers compared the effects of eco-tourism with that of animal domestication and urbanisation.
In each case, interactions between people and animals could lead to habituation – described as “a kind of taming”.
Evidence from domesticated silver foxes to goldfish had shown that animals living close to humans become less wary of predators. Foxes, squirrels and birds living in urban areas were also bolder and less likely to flee danger.
In some cases, the presence of humans could discourage predators and create safe havens, the researchers added.
With humans around, vervet monkeys were less bothered by leopards, for instance.
But the scientists questioned what might happen to these animals when the visitors leave.
They warned: “We know that humans are able to drive rapid change in other species.
“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 behaviour or population biology of a species and influence its function in its community.”
He added: “It will now be essential to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how different species and species in different situations respond to human visitation and under what precise conditions human exposure might put them at risk.”