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Safari Tourists Scare Elephants And Make Them More Violent: Study

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Elephants may seem like quiet animals, but apparently, they can get more violent because of tourists. In a new study, researchers discover that these big mammals get increasingly scared by the presence of people in the wildlife.

While rising tourism opportunities in the safari bring more income to the land, it also entails more reason for animals to experience increased stress, guarding behavior, and aggression. Studies on the impacts of tourism and animal-human interaction in the safari are rare. This new research is said to be the first to tackle the effects of tourism in African elephants' behavior. Part of the study's goals is to investigate on the direction of animal group movement in connection with tourists viewing them.

Investigating Elephants During Tourist Excursions

For 15 months, the researchers document the relationship of elephants' behaviors and the total number of tourists in Madikwe Game Reserve, which is managed by state, private, and community sectors. The reserve, which is 680 km2, has about 1,348 elephants, making it one of the places in South Africa, with the most elephants in terms of density.

Private vehicles are not allowed in the reserve. Tourists use game drive vehicles, which are big, open vehicles that can accommodate up to 10 people, plus one spotter in the front. The reserve only allows a maximum of three such vehicles in one elephant site.

The team collected data from April 18, 2016 to June 28, 2017. They were able to generate about 14 observations per month. All in all, the team was able to conduct about 156 observations. The samples were obtained by driving random routes around the reserve, and coordinating with tour guides about the presence of elephants.

For the behavior investigation, the researchers were able to identify 26 individuals, of which 14 are males and 12 are females. When an elephant was spotted, the researchers made sure to keep a distance of 30 meters from the closest elephant. If the distance was less than 30 meters, the investigator would gently reverse the vehicle and drive back before turning the engine off. If the elephant moved alongside the vehicle without exhibiting signs of distress, such as "ears out" and vigilance, the investigator continued to followed at a distance before turning the engine off.

More Safari Tourists Mean More Violent Elephants

Results show that the presence of game drive vehicles and tourism pressure impact the behavior of African elephants in the study location. The researchers find that elephants move away from tourists with the presence of more game drive vehicles. The elephants are also more likely to demonstrate aggression toward their fellow elephants if the number of tourists in the site is high.

"Studies highlight the contribution that behavioural indicators of welfare can make to the management and success of wild populations," the researchers write. Their study demonstrates that even with regulated viewing policies in place, tourism results in behavior changes among elephants. The observed changes are limited, possibly due to the animals' ability to move away from stressors, suggesting that with conscientious supervision, wildlife tourism can be done in a way that animal welfare is top priority. Such idea gives hope that wildlife tourism can actually be done as a conservation strategy.

Isabelle Szott, study lead author from UK's Liverpool John Moores University says tourists who like to view animals in their natural habitat should know about the possible bad impacts of their activity. She adds that studies should look into the gold standard practices that can help lessen such negative effects on the animals.

The study is published in the Journal of Zoology.

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