From South America to Southeast Asia, tour boats are threatening wildlife

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Tourists looking for iguana iguana Latin American ships can be treated with creatures that shake their heads furiously. This strange movement isn’t the reptiles nodding their heads to an unheard-of reggaeton beat – it may actually be a sign of distress, according to a recent study published in the journal Biotropica.

“One of the functions of head movement may be to communicate danger to [other iguanas]write the researchers. “Boat activity could cause anti-predator behavior, due to their large presence and loud noise, which could be perceived as threatening.”

Todd Lewis, an ecologist at the University of the West of England in Bristol and co-author of the paper, worked at the Caño Palma Biological Station in Costa Rica for several years. There, he saw boat traffic steadily increasing to cater to tourists eager to spot iguanas and other species. “When we used to group two or three boats together,” he says, “I started to notice the animals disappearing from the shoreline.”

Certainly, some iguanas have fled. Those that remained might “vigorously bow their heads” or display the flaps of skin below the neck known as baleen, says Elizabeth Rice, an ecological consultant and co-author of the study. Despite its somewhat humorous image, this behavior could have implications for the welfare of the species, she adds. Even fleeing into the nearby forest can interrupt an iguana’s pilgrimage ritual, resulting in lethargy and increased vulnerability to predation.

“There are several species that can potentially be affected in the same way. So far, that hasn’t been measured,” Lewis says. This sentiment gains urgency when considering the resurgence of international tourism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the United Nations’ world tourism organizationglobal international tourist arrivals more than doubled in January 2022 compared to 2021. These circumstances have forced some researchers and public officials to reconsider how ecotourism operations are conducted.

scratch the monkeys

While floating along the Kinabatangan River in Malaysia, you may spot proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) relaxing on branches or snacking. Researchers recently sought to understand how six different groups of these monkeys with peculiar appendages react to excursion boats: they approached, moved slowly and rubbed shoulders with a motor boat at a distance.

Tourists on a cruise boat along the Kinabatangan River in Malaysia. (Credit: Magic Orb Studio/Shutterstock)

As they moved at high speed nearby, the monkeys fidgeted, scratched, behaved aggressively towards each other and fled into nearby forests, says Benoit Goossens, director of the Danau Girang Field Center and member of the research team.

This behavior, the researchers concluded, is due to stress. “We saw that each approach had more or less an impact on the behavior of the proboscis monkey,” says Goossens. “What[ever] they were currently doing – whether it was feeding, grooming or resting – we saw that there was an impact.

The proboscis monkey is listed as a the threatened species on the IUCN Red List. In terms of potential impacts on the species, the stress caused by approaching boats does not compare to other threats they face, such as deforestation and hunting. Nevertheless, the results show that the tour boats disturb the monkeys.

“We currently have students studying the same thing with elephants,” adds Goossens. “We expect to find something very similar.”

Whales in motion

Embarking on a whale watching experience can be the pinnacle of any trip. Caleta Chañaral de Aceituno, off the coast of Chile, is a prime location for spotting fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) as they gather en masse to feed. But like hopping iguanas and scratching monkeys, these gentle giants don’t necessarily relish the experience of being watched.


Read more: Scientists film a feeding frenzy of 150 fin whales


Macarena Santos-Carvallo, marine biologist at the University of Valparaíso, recently conducted a study monitor fin whale activity. “When the boats arrived, we saw that the whales were moving faster than before,” she recalls. Their movements became more unpredictable; instead of heading in a straight line, they changed course underwater. This zigzag, erratic movement was likely an escape tactic, Santos-Carvallo says, but when more boats were present, the whales simply tried to get away.

Caleta Chañaral de Aceituno in Chile. (Credit: Javier Rubilar/CC BY-NC 2.0/Flickr)

“Ecotourism in general has positive consequences because it provides knowledge about wildlife and the importance of ecosystems,” she says, though she fears continued pressure from boats could push whales away from their feeding grounds. favourites.

Tackling tourism

Each of the researchers mentioned agrees that a complete cessation of ecotourism is neither possible nor necessary. Rather, it must be done in a way that takes into account the potential impact on wildlife.

To limit impacts on iguanas or other similarly affected species, for example, Lewis thinks reducing the number of tour boats on rivers and increasing their distance from animals could help. “It just takes a little human organization and planning to minimize the time animals are exposed to disturbance, especially during peak tourist times,” he says.

Goossens cites a key finding from his team’s study: Boats can observe proboscis monkeys from about 200 feet away and cause minimal disturbance. “The idea is mainly to propose guidelines, so that we can find a compromise between making tourists happy and also [ensuring that] monkeys, elephants and all other species are not stressed,” he says.

Such measures would undoubtedly allow for a better overall experience for wildlife and tourists.

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