Why Ecotourism Is Dangerous for Wildlife

CC BY 2.0. Phuket photographer

Nature-based tourism is exposing animals to human illnesses, which can be deadly.

One of the many delights of traveling in an exotic, faraway country is seeing the wildlife. For many tourists it is the first time they get to see certain species in real life. It's exciting, and no wonder that people want to get as close as possible for that perfect Instagram shot.

The problem, however, is that not travellers do not stop to think about what effect their actions may have on the animals. Disease is a two-way street, and while most travellers are concerned about not getting sick themselves, they don't give sufficient thought to the illnesses they could inadvertently pass on to wildlife by behaving inappropriately.

An interview between Dr. Michael Muehlenbein, an anthropologist at Baylor University in Texas, and Knowable Magazine's Bob Holmes delves into this aspect of ecotourism that has been largely unstudied until now. Muehlenbein is hoping to change that. He has interviewed thousands of visitors at wildlife sanctuaries in Gibraltar, Saint Kitts, Japan, Malaysia, South Africa, and Thailand to assess their attitudes toward interacting with wildlife. He told Holmes,

"We ask visitors about their current disease symptoms, vaccination status, environmental awareness. We ask their opinions about touching wild animals, how close they should get to wild animals, willingness to own one as a pet."

What he has found is that, everywhere, people are more concerned about contracting a disease from wildlife than passing one on. And while a majority understands that humans can give diseases to wild primates (86 percent of tourists in Malaysia, 77.7 percent in Saint Kitts), most would still touch or feed a wild primate if given the chance (66 percent in Malaysia, 56 percent in Saint Kitts).

woman feeding monkeys

This reveals a distressing psychological disconnect, where the desire to have an intimate interaction with an animal outweighs a rational understanding about its potential consequences. In Muehlenbein's words,

"Imagine you’ve spent $2,000 to go to Malaysia to see the orangutans and you’ve got a cold. Are you going to stay away? It becomes a complex moral question: How much do you respect the life of other animals over your vacation experience?"

Perhaps people don't understand how serious their human illnesses are to many animals, particularly apes. A common cold is life-threatening for an ape, as are measles, chicken pox, and the herpes virus. When Muehlenbein did throat swabs on visitors to an orangutan sanctuary in northern Borneo, he found that more than 6 percent had active respiratory-tract viruses in their throats.

Is there a solution? Yes. Stay away from wildlife! Never feed or touch the animals, and give them a wide berth. Don't visit if you're sick. If you see other people disobeying signs or lacking common sense in their interactions with the wildlife, call them out on it. Tell officials or whoever manages the site that this kind of behavior is not appropriate.

Do research when choosing wildlife sanctuaries to visit. Support ones that take a responsible approach and keep visitors separate from wildlife, such as the highly regarded mountain gorilla sanctuary in Rwanda that gives all visitors a safety briefing ahead of time and strictly limits numbers of visitors. Avoid tourism companies that expect tips for their guides, as these may be more prone to bending the rules in hopes of monetary reward.

Realize that the further we stay away from these animals right now, the safer they'll be and the longer they will survive for subsequent generations to admire.