Can pinnipeds and wildlife tourism thrive at the same time?

Corral, C. T., Szteren, D., & Cassini, M. H. (2017). Short-and long-term changes in the intensity of responses of pinnipeds to tourist approaches in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Wildlife tourism can be an important aspect of a conservation strategy. It has the potential to collect much-needed funds for the protection of species, and it helps educate people on endangered species and their needs for survival. However, it can be extremely harmful to animal populations if not carried out with care, since encounters with humans can be enormously stressful for animals. This study investigated the effects of tourist approaches to pinnipeds in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay, over an 18-year period. The results indicate that, despite a fence that has been placed to protect the animals, response levels to humans have gone up. Instead of alleviating stress experienced by the pinnipeds, the fence might have exacerbated the problem.

Existing research on animal responses to encounters with people points to the potential for different behaviours to develop over time. While it is plausible that animals get used to encounters with humans due to habituation or social learning, the opposite might also occur after a process of sensitisation. In addition, it is possible that only the more tolerant individuals stay in the area. This study investigated changes in intensity of pinnipeds’ responses to tourists visiting their colony in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay. It looked at seasonal changes and changes throughout the years.

The researchers compared data from both spring 2014 (November/December) and summer 2015 (January/February), and spring 1996 and 2014. The number of tourist approaches and their behaviour were recorded. This includes duration, distance of the nearest tourist to the animals, the size of the group of people, and their attitude (calm, intermediate, or intense). The behaviour of the pinnipeds was also recorded (rest, alert, threat, retreat, or leaving), where only the most dramatic behaviour observed was logged. In spring 1996, 502 pinnipeds were counted, while 94 tourist approaches were logged. In spring 2014, the number of animals had risen to 1009, while a maximum number of 446 was counted during summer 2015. In spring 2014, the number of tourist approaches was 51, and 27 during summer 2015.

The results show that the pinnipeds’ level of responsiveness significantly decreased from spring to summer, while there was a sharp increase in responsiveness throughout the years. Regardless of season or year, the pinnipeds responded more heavily when confronted with more intense behaviour from tourists. In addition, distance was crucial in the level of response the animals exhibited.

Not all conservation efforts are successful

These results might seem surprising, since a fence was placed in 1997 to protect the pinnipeds from undesirable tourist behaviour. The data shows that this fence has not been successful in reducing the impact of tourists on pinnipeds. The researchers propose the explanation that the fence did not protect the entire animal population since it did not cover the whole area. This might have concentrated the tourist disturbance in 

specific areas. Another option is that there was an overall reduction in the number of tourist approaches, but that the smaller number of approaches were now more disturbing to the pinnipeds (at least in the short term) since they had not yet had the chance to become familiar with humans.

Concluding, the research points out that wildlife conservation is not always straightforward. While the fence was placed to protect the pinnipeds, their response-levels went up almost threefold during the following years. Thus, assuming other factors are not responsible for this dramatic increase, the fence has had the opposite effect. Further research into the effectiveness of conservation efforts in similar circumstances would enable wildlife managers to maximise welfare levels of these animal populations.

World Animal Protection’s view

This study gives helpful insight into the need for continuous review of conservation strategies. While the number of pinnipeds might have increased in the studied area, their level of wellbeing has become an even bigger concern. Compassionate conservation is a growing movement to which future research can make a valuable contribution.