The rate at which humans have uncovered every inch of our planet can be hard to fathom. It was only a century ago that the first commercial flight left the runway, but now, it seems as though no mountain, desert, or reef is out of reach, no unidentified lizard, bear, or fish awaiting a name. What was once unthinkable is now simply doable. That means that remote destinations and the endangered animals that inhabit them — like humpback whales, rhinoceroses, and bald eagles — are more accessible than ever before.
But remember: every action has a reaction.
So, how has this newfound accessibility affected our planet’s wildlife and their respective ecosystems?
Well, since modern tourism spiked in the 1960s, we’ve seen certain destinations grow overrun with tourists (sometimes even outweighing the number of residents, like in Iceland — a wildlife lover’s paradise — where there are reportedly three tourists for every resident). Consequently, we’ve witnessed the creation and popularization of the term overtourism, and there’s been even more buzz around the word in the last year or so. Its meaning is simple: too many tourists, not enough space and resources. Think of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, or the neverending safaris in Kenya’s Maasai Reserve.
What’s important to note is that with so many people heading out on trips each year (1.2 billion in 2017, to be exact), it’s becoming harder to ignore the effects of tourism on our planet and the animals we share it with. Every day, we see more accommodating infrastructures built and fewer untouched areas protected and preserved.
When it comes to the effects of overtourism, certain animals have had it worse than others. Think of the zebras affected by unethical safaris, or the elephants stuck in crowded sanctuaries. Picture cruise ships floating toward schools of fish and sea turtles. Then, turn your attention to the massive double-lane highways that lead to high-profile national parks — they weren’t always there, and now they’ve replaced the old-growth forests that once housed thousands of species. And, of course, airplanes can’t be left off the list either, as noise pollution causes animals to frantically flee their habitats and disperse, disrupting migration patterns and even leading to the desertion of newborns, not to mention its carbon footprint.
What’s more, we also threaten the natural order of ecosystems when we travel. Even seemingly small acts, such as straying slightly from designated trails or taking our cars offroad, contribute to this problem. Within major ecosystems, even the smallest of organisms matter because their livelihood is crucial to biodiversity.
With this in mind, it’s safe to say that our presence in these once untouched locations creates a monumental response from wildlife, which, in turn, permeates through entire ecosystems — like a ripple effect. These responses vary in degree, depending on the species, sex, stage of breeding, and habitat. But, in most cases, interactions with humans are unexpected and can cause unnatural stimuli and increased heart rates — whether from fear or just plain stress. This was illustrated in a study conducted on Adélie penguins by Boris M. Culik. His findings suggested that the Antarctic birds, following their run-ins with humans, burned an unprecedented amount of energy due to general encounters with humans. To replenish the spent energy, the penguins were forced to consume more food than usual, which has the potential to upend the balance of their local ecosystem.
Unfortunately, I found a lot of stories like this to mull over while researching for this essay. There was almost too much information. There were seemingly endless blogs, organizations, and studies all preaching the negative side effects of what the tourism industry has had and continues to have on animals’ homes, both big and small.
So, where does this leave us now?
It leaves us looking toward the future. We are desperately in need of answers, change, and results. One option to focus on is ecotourism, a practice defined as “tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, especially to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife.” Like overtourism, ecotourism is a relatively new term and offers some fresh alternatives for popular travel destinations, especially those focused around animals.
On an individual level, however, we can be more mindful of our interactions with wildlife and more deliberate with our travel choices. Do your best to leave no trace when traveling in wilderness areas and refrain from feeding any animals you come across. And be diligent to avoid potential disturbances in the spaces we share with these intrinsic creatures. Hopefully, as a community, we can erase some of the damage already done.
Action, reaction. Remember?
Header image by Hugh Brown