Egyptian Vulture

Ecotourism can provide the critical difference between survival and extinction for endangered animals according to new research from Australia’s Griffith University in South East Queensland.

A team of scientists from the university used population viability modeling to develop a method that for the first time quantifies the impact of ecotourism on threatened species. They published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.

Professor Ralf Buckley, Griffith’s International Chair in Ecotourism Research said, "We know that ecotourism is increasing on a global scale, with visitor numbers to many protected areas expanding each year. We also know that such activities can have negative as well as positive impacts.

"Until now, however, there has been no way to evaluate the net effect of ecotourism in increasing or decreasing the risk of extinction for endangered species, which is the key parameter for conservation efforts."

Population viability models are widely used in practical wildlife management and are used to estimate cumulative population changes by simulating birds and deaths iteratively, one generation at a time with final predictions based on thousands of repeated simulations.

The researchers from Griffith University used models to calculate future population changes for nine threatened species including a number of birds – orangutans, hoolock gibbons, golden lion tamarins, cheetahs, African wild dogs, New Zealand sea lions, African penguins, great green macaws and Egyptian vultures.

"We converted all ecotourism effects - positive and negative - to ecological parameters and found that for seven of the species involved, ecotourism provides net conservation gains through factors such as private reserves, habitat restoration, reduction in habitat damage, removal of feral predators, anti-poaching measures or captive breeding and food supplementation," explained Professor Buckley.

The research demonstrates how the net effects of tourism differ among species and sub-populations and that these effects are influenced by local circumstances. For example, they depend on the scale and intensity of ecotourism, the size of the initial populations, rates of predation and on the impacts of other industries such as fishing and logging. Other factors, such as poaching will also be important.

However, the research also confirmed that ecotourism is not always successful and in a few cases can have a net negative effect on threatened species.

But for most of the rare and endangered bird and mammal species analyzed ecotourism is making the critical difference between survival and extinction.

African penguins are also known as jackass penguins and are confined to southern African waters. Commercial fishing, climate change and oil spills are all having an effect on their population as is the practice of egg poaching.

Great green macaws are found in Central and South America and are threatened by habitat loss from the unsustainable harvest of trees that produce high quality wood.

Egyptian vultures do not have many natural predators but human activity is putting them at risk. Collisions with power lines, hunting, poisoning and ingesting lead from gunshot are all contributing to the decline in the species.

Ecotourism is an important movement that began in the 1980s and was considered the antidote to mass market holiday resorts that sprang up in Europe and the Americas.

Conservationists argued that ecotourism could help protect important ecosystems and habitats around the world by providing vital income to areas if they were left unspoilt as the natural habitat and wildlife would become the tourist attraction.

A number of holiday companies now offer responsible travel to wildlife hotspots all over the world and many encourage holidaymakers to invest in the local economy or join volunteering schemes.

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