Ecotourism is a fusion between two words given to a type of sustainable travel designed to protect areas where nature and wild animals are the protagonists. It is difficult, however, to establish the boundaries between good practice, where the adventure is limited by respect for the environment and wildlife, and mere exploitation for profit that could have serious repercussions on the welfare of the animals.
To what extent is ecotourism sustainable?
Swimming with dolphins, watching a leopard hunting, being a spectator of spawning of turtles in danger of extinction: all unique experiences for someone only accustomed to urban life. Yet, despite our enthusiasm for knowledge of such realities, we should consider the point of view of the animals, that, by their nature, are unaccustomed to a human audience.
A recent study by Professor Daniel Blumstein of the University of California and published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution suggests that animals’ habituation to the presence of man may affect their behaviour. In particular, being perpetually in the spotlight of human attention could change the natural dynamics of predation: “When animals interact in ‘benign’ ways with humans, they may let down their guard,” Blumstein explains. “As animals get used to feeling comfortable with humans nearby, they may become bolder in other situations. If this boldness transfers to real predators, then they will suffer higher mortality when they encounter real predators.” Even a small disturbance caused by humans may affect the behaviour of some species and their function in the local ecosystem. The cumbersome human presence could both lower the defences of herbivores making them vulnerable to poachers and predators, while making the generally elusive predator abandon its favourite hunting grounds.
Men and animals: changing opinion
And while waiting for the results of further study as to how much human presence from ecotourism affects the balance of animals, we can work to change people’s perspectives on the matter: no longer are nature and animals in our service but just the opposite. For example, Just Freedom, the unit for the recovery of wolves, donated by Almo Nature to the Centro Tutela e Ricerca Fauna Esotica e Selvatica – Monte Adone, was established to take care of wolves found injured or distressed and reintroduce them back in to the wild. No ulterior use for profit or entertainment but the will to protect the nature of one of the world’s most elusive of predators that now, because of poaching, needs human aid. This different approach positions man and nature not poles apart but seeks to ensure coexistence without mutual harm, a truly ‘sustainable’ initiative.