Wildlife tourism is increasing at an estimated 10% growth per year and in 2013 (the last year with full data) there were approximately 12 million wildlife tourism trips globally. Africa, with its iconic megafauna and striking landscapes, is one of the region’s that has seen the most growth in wildlife tourism. And though many support the growth of wildlife tourism because it encourages anti-poaching and anti-deforestation policies, the influx of well-meaning tourists can take a toll on the land and its environs. This made a group of scientists from Liverpool John Moores University in the UK wonder just how such a surge in animal-viewing has affected the actual animals.
Their research, published in the Journal of Zoology, suggests that rising numbers of tourists may be stressing out the animals, specifically free-ranging elephants.
Elephants are some of the most intelligent animals on earth and experience emotions just as humans do. They have been observed grieving their dead, playing games, and are capable of self-medicating. Understandably, therefore, elephants are also susceptible to experiencing stress.
To comprehend how tourism is affecting elephants’ stress level, lead author Isabelle Szott and colleagues monitored elephant behavior over fifteen months in an African reserve. “We studied the effect of monthly tourist pressure (tourist numbers) on the occurrence of stress‐related, vigilance and conspecific‐directed aggressive behavior in 26 individually identified elephants and the effect of up to three vehicles on the direction of travel of non‐identified herds using 5‐min continuous focal observations,” write the authors in their study.
From this prolonged observation, the researchers determined that elephants were more likely to perform aggressive behavior towards other elephants when there were more tourists in the reserve. They also concluded that elephant herds were more likely to move away from tourists when multiple vehicles were present.
The researchers hope that their study will be able to inform wildlife tour guides on how to best manage their safaris. “Results suggest that reserves should monitor elephant behavior to identify when tourist pressure has potential effects on elephant welfare and train guides to monitor behavior and adjust minimum distances flexibly to ensure high welfare standards and tourist safety,” the authors state.
Furthermore, tourists should also shoulder some of the responsibility, making sure that their eagerness to get a selfie up-close with an elephant doesn’t cause harm to the animal. "Tourists who wish to observe animals in their natural habitat should be aware of their potential negative effects on animal welfare and research should investigate best practice standards to minimize such negative effects," said Szott.