The negative impact of tourists on elephant behaviour

An image of an elephant squirting mud out of its trunk, to illustrate elephant behaviour
© iStock/paulafrench

A new study from the Journal of Zoology has investigated the negative impact of tourists on elephant behaviour in reserves.

Although the study notes that “Wildlife viewing, where carried out sustainably, facilitates protection of wildlife habitats, biodiversity and natural ecological processes worldwide”, it also highlights the need to monitor elephant behaviour to ensure that eco-tourism is not having a negative impact on elephants or reducing tourist safety.

What effect does eco-tourism have on wildlife?

The authors note that: “Eco‐tourism and human–wildlife interaction can lead to increases in stress, vigilance and aggression in many species, however, studies investigating wildlife viewing are scarce.”

The researchers state that mega‐fauna, such as African elephants, are one of the most popular species for wildlife viewing, particularly especially for international tourists.

Over 15 months, the researchers studied the effect of monthly tourist pressure on the occurrence of the following in 26 elephants:

  • Stress-related;
  • Vigiliance; and
  • Conspecific-directed aggressive behaviour.

The changes in elephant behaviour

The study found that the elephants were more likely to perform aggressive behaviour towards other elephants when there was a high number of tourists in the reserve. Elephant herds are also more likely to move away from tourists when multiple vehicles are present.

How can the impact of tourism on animal welfare be limited?

The lead author Isabelle Szott, of Liverpool John Moores University, UK, commented: “Tourists who wish to observe animals in their natural habitat should be aware of their potential negative effects on animal welfare and research should investigate best practise standards to minimise such negative effects.”

The research paper results suggest that elephant reserves should monitor the behaviour of elephants to identify when tourist pressure has potential effects on elephant welfare. They should also train guides to monitor behaviour and adjust minimum distances flexibly to ensure high welfare standards and the safety of tourists.

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