Ecotourism doesn’t always help orangutans

19 February 2016: ABC Science: Anna Salleh

Ecotourism will only help save orangutans if it generates enough income to replace that coming from logging, new research suggests.

The findings are a result of the first study to weigh up the pros and cons of ecotourism for threatened species, co-author Professor Ralf Buckley, from the Griffith University School of Environment, said.

The study, published today in PLOS ONE, also found that ecotourism, regardless of scale, was making matters worse for the New Zealand sea lion.

However, the good news is that even after allowing for negative effects, ecotourism does help preserve seven of the nine species studied.

“There’s been so much research on ecotourism carried out over the past 20 or 30 years without reaching any conclusion. This explains why,” Professor Buckley, who is International Chair in Ecotourism Research, said.

“There is no universal pattern — it depends on the biology of the species and the details of the ecotourism operation.”

Previous studies have shown ecotourism can preserve animal populations by such things as habitat preservation or protection from poaching.

Evidence shows ecotourism can also reduce populations by cutting birth rate or survival, for example through disturbance to breeding or feeding.

While previous studies have looked at negative and positive impacts separately, Professor Buckley and colleagues have developed the first model to measure the net effect.

“The question is at the end of the day is it good or bad,” Professor Buckley said. “There hasn’t been any method to calculate that in the past.”

Weighing up the pros and cons for threatened species

Professor Buckley and colleagues scoured the international literature for studies on ecotourism impacts, and integrated the findings into established models that calculate the viability of threatened species’ populations.

They did this by quantifying the impacts of ecotourism operations on the habitat size, current population, birth and death rates, and migration of the species studied.

After all their research they only found sufficient data to analyse for nine out of 133 threatened species worldwide that had been previously studied.

“We would have liked to have included rhinoceros,” Professor Buckley said. “But because rhino are under such threat from poaching at the moment nobody is prepared to say how many rhino they have.”

The study found ecotourism was good news for the cheetah, hoolock gibbon, golden lion tamarin, African wild dog, great green macaw, Egyptian vulture, and African penguin.

“These species are more likely to survive and less likely to become extinct as long as you have ecotourism to help them.”

Orangutans: ecotourism versus logging

But the impact of ecotourism on orangutans depended on the scale of the operation.

Positive effects from small-scale ecotourism was not enough to outweigh the main threat to orangutans, which is habitat loss due to logging.

But when the scale of the operation was larger, ecotourism could have a net positive effect on populations, researchers said.

“You get this threshold effect, or switch effect,” Professor Buckley said. “If you have enough ecotourism that can displace the logging you get a positive effect.”

Professor Buckley said previous research suggested ecotourism’s main positive impact occurred through the income it generated, which could be used to fund conservation activities that displace logging or poaching.

“If, for a particular area, people can make more money out of ecotourism than they can out of logging they will protect that area of forest and therefore the orangutans.”

But, he added, political factors would also determine whether ecotourism helped conserve threatened species.

“Even where ecotourism can generate more money than a primary industry, it may still not outweigh that industry, depending on who controls that industry and who gets the money,” Professor Buckley said.

“A lot of this is influenced by large scale power politics and ecotourism is just one part of that picture.”

Eco-tourism ‘unequivocally bad’ for NZ sea lions

Ecotourism was not beneficial for the New Zealand sea lion, which is found around the mainland and sub-Antarctic islands.

Fisheries are the main threat to sea lion numbers because they reduce pup survival by removing the animals’ food, and reducing milk production in the mothers.

However, ecotourism also reduces pup survival because it disturbs the mothers’ feeding.

“If every time you are about to drink mum gets chased off the rock, you’re less likely to survive,” Professor Buckley said.

“The effect of ecotourism was to aggravate the impacts of fisheries. So ecotourism for the New Zealand sea lion turned out to be unequivocally bad.”

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