Aussie scientists have found a way to calculate whether ecotourism can help endangered species survive - and the results are mixed.
Signe Dean

18 Feb 2016 - 2:44 PM  UPDATED 18 Feb 2016 - 5:04 PM

A team of researchers at Griffith University in Queensland have come up with a new way to measure the effects of ecotourism on endangered species.

"We found that for most species - but not all - the overall effect of ecotourism was to reduce the risk of extinction," says Professor Ralf Buckley, International Chair in Ecotourism Research at Griffith University, who co-authored the study published today in PLOS ONE.

Around the world, especially in developing countries, the practice of ecotourism is vital in securing funding for species conservation efforts. There are many types of ecotourism, including cultural awareness programs and educational excursions - and some of these are directly geared towards preserving the habitats of endangered species.

However, the impacts of ecotourism aren’t always positive, and in fact are rather difficult to quantify. Even if ecotourism can help fund habitat preservation, there is also the risk of disturbing a species in its breeding grounds, for example.

“It is complex and many species will have their own socio-political, protected area management and scientific context,” says Associate Professor David Newsome from Murdoch University in Perth, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Apples and oranges

While there has been a lot of work done in ecotourism research, the data are not directly comparable - some research focuses on the pros, while other studies look at the negative impact human presence can bring.

"You can't calculate from those two bodies of work what's the overall net effect on the species, because it's apples and oranges," says Buckley.

With this new study researchers have finally been able to calculate the potential for a species survival based on ecotourism efforts.

To do this, the researchers gathered data from previously published studies and converted ecological effects into basic population parameters for endangered species, including area of habitat, starting population, birth and death rates, and so on.

"If you know all those things, you can calculate whether the population is going to increase, year by year," says Buckley. "What we've done now is converted these apples and oranges into pears, if you like."

More data needed to expand the research

Out of the 64 threatened species the researchers identified as an attraction for ecotourism, only nine ended up having all the necessary data to perform the calculations.

For most of these species the net effect of ecotourism turned out to be positive. However, even for animals which are “in the red” in terms of population, the impacts are situation-specific, and ecotourism isn’t necessarily to blame. However, New Zealand sealions are visited by scores of tourists, and this actually compounds the already negative effect that commercial fisheries extol on the death rate of sealion pups.

Meanwhile orangutans in Sumatra are declining in vast numbers due to commercial logging of their native habitat, mainly for palm oil production purposes.

The researchers found that for orangutans ecotourism could actually outweigh the negative effects of logging - but only if the tourism industry is boosted to a sufficient scale. "Ecotourism can make the difference between the orangutan going extinct or surviving," says Buckley.

"For many other species, most of the data are available, but one or two things are missing,” Buckley adds. “So it would not be difficult for people actively engaged in using ecotourism as a conservation tool to obtain the necessary extra information."

David Newsome stresses that the value of ecotourism depends on our understand of it, and also on how it’s carried out.

“Little bits of habitat supporting highly valued species that are protected night and day may be saved, but this is not substantive rainforest conservation,” he says. “This means that the loss of tropical rain forest and many attendant species continues on while we save a primate from extinction under artificial conditions.”

Griffith researchers hope that in the future their new assessment model can be used to better evaluate conservation efforts.

"We know what data are needed to make the same calculations for any species, and we would like for this to become a standard approach for assessing the value of ecotourism for conservation," says Buckley.

Read this too
Palm oil: we all play a role
Is our insatiable desire for snack food destroying the world’s forests? Learn all about the problems with palm oil.