Ecotourism—the practice of visiting natural places not just to observe wildlife, but to actively conserve it—has seen dramatic growth in recent years: 7 percent annually, says the International Ecotourism Society, making it the fastest growing segment of the travel market. It’s not hard to understand why when you consider the promise of fun and charitable rewards in equal measure: In one fell swoop, zip-line through the cloud forest and save the orangutans that swing through it, too.
But new research may give travelers pause before dusting off the binoculars or snorkels for their next ecotourism adventure.
A paper published Friday in Trends in Ecology and Evolution suggests that visitors to protected wildlife areas may be harming the local fauna, no matter how good their practices and intentions. In an analysis of 100 studies on animal behavior, researchers found evidence that animals let down their guard in environments where human activity makes predators scarce. Those behaviors could spill into interactions with poachers and natural predators—particularly at night or in the off-season, when the din of humanity abates—to potentially lethal effect.