Most people believe that visiting wild animals' natural environments can boost funding for conservation efforts, but the idea may be misleading. Although ecotourism has become more popular among adventurers, a recent study revealed that it may harm wild animals' survival instincts, in turn, domesticating them and increasing their chances of being eaten.

Wildlife scientists discovered that animals such as black-footed penguins, Barbary apes, and gorillas are more susceptible to ecotourism because they have a strong tendency to become at ease with human visitors. However, scientists say that humans winning the trust of animals may encourage them to drop their defenses even at the presence of their natural predators.

In a study published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, experts had analyzed more than 100 research studies on the effects of ecotourism to wild animals. Their conclusion is that the behavior of wild animals are altered which put them at risk.

Daniel Blumstein, lead researcher and professor from the University of California, said that protected wildlife areas around the world receive over eight billion visitors annually.

"That's like each human on Earth visited a protected area once a year," described Blumstein.

The professor also explained that eco-tourism is similar to urbanization or domestication, in a way that interactions between people and animals may lead to habituation or taming.

"This massive amount of nature-based and ecotourism can be added to the long list of drivers of human-induced rapid environmental change," he said.

Meanwhile, some predators become discouraged to hunt wild animals with the presence of humans around them. This creates a safe haven for smaller animals which would make them act bolder. For example, when humans are around, vervet monkeys experience fewer face-offs with predatory leopards.

Research also shows that domesticated silver foxes become less fearful and more docile due to interactions with humans. Birds and fox squirrels that live in urbanized areas do not flee as easily as they have become bolder than before. Moreover, domesticated fish have become less responsive to simulated predatory attacks.

Blumstein hopes that researchers in the future will further analyze the effects of ecotourism, and the interactions between wildlife and people. He added that it is important to understand how various species in different situations respond to human interaction and what conditions may place these wild animals at risk.

Photo : Rod Waddington | Flickr

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