Examining Ecotourism – Does it stress out the monkeys?

By Dominique Bertrand
YummyLizardEcotourism is a growing industry. In 2001, United States citizens alone spent 32 billion dollars traveling overseas to view wildlife in their native habitats. This amount is expected to triple by 20201. Local populations often benefit financially from this industry due to the demand for lodging, food, and guides. However, this increase in human travel creates problems for native species of interest. In primate species specifically, there is evidence that unavoidable, chronic exposure to tourism can be stressful, as indicated by behavioral and physiological responses, even in sites active for decades2,3.

UhohStress is a normal biological response to an external threat; once a threat is detected, the body responds by diverting energy from the immune system (among others) to systems that can prepare it for fight or flight. As a normal response, this can enhance fitness and the system should return to normal within a few hours. On the other hand, abnormal stress responses can be detrimental to an individual’s health and reproductive potential4,5. Primates that experience abnormal stress responses frequently or chronically may be more likely to succumb to infection or disease, and stressors influencing abnormal responses may contribute to mortality rates.

Sites focused on ecotourism are also often buttressed against villages and this proximity can cause conflict between human and animal populations. Crop raiding is a big problem in these buffer zones. Community responses typically involve either eradication of the offending species or range restriction tactics (via fireworks, dogs, sling-shots, and/or herding). Alternatively, some wildlife range restriction occurs in an effort to enhance the ecotourism experience, ensuring that tourists always see animals of interest. Unfortunately, for some primate species, range restriction results in a high rate of infant mortality6. This is particularly detrimental in areas inhabited by critically endangered species.FaniGroomingBaby

Despite these concerns, ecotourism is a necessary component of conservation. Thus, in order to circumvent the problems it may exacerbate, we need solutions that balance the needs of local people, as well as native species. My dissertation research aims to do this. The island of Sulawesi, Indonesia contains seven of the ~20 existing macaque species. Tangkoko Nature Reserve once claimed the highest number of endemic species on the island7. One of the key endemic species that attracts tourists (and hence benefits the local community through guiding and lodging) is the Sulawesi black crested macaque (Macaca nigra). Unfortunately, M. nigra’s conservation status is declining rapidly8.

I am currently examining the effects of two human connected influences (tourism and crop guarding via range restriction) on stress-related behavior and physiology of M. nigra in Tangkoko, over the course of one year. The results of my research should provide insight on how to help Tangkoko achieve its conservation goals while still remaining a source of income to the local population. Our natural world is shrinking while the communities that depend on it are growing, resulting in increased conflict between humans and animals. Ecotourism sites need guidance in both assessing their specific problems and implementing solutions. With more research we can build a casebook for best practices.



  1. Tapper, R., United Nations Environment Programme., & Secretariat, C. o. M. S. (2006). Wildlife watching and tourism: A study on the benefits and risks of a fast growing tourism activity and its impacts on species. [Nairobi] : Bonn: United Nations Environment Programme.
  2. Behie, A.M., Pavelka, M.S.M., & Chapman, C.A. (2010). Sources of variation in fecal cortisol levels in howler monkeys in Belize. American Journal of Primatology, 72(7): 600–606.6.
  3. Maréchal, L., Semple, S., Majolo, B., Qarro, M., Heistermann, M., & MacLarnon, A. (2011). Impacts of tourism on anxiety and physiological stress levels in wild male Barbary macaques. Biological Conservation, 144(9): 2188–2193
  4. Moberg, G. (2000). Biological responses to stress: Implications for animal welfare. In J. Mench & Moberg, G. (Eds.), The Biology of Animal Stress: Basic Principles and Implications for Animal Welfare. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing, pp. 1–22.
  5. Sapolsky RM (1993) Neuroendocrinology of the stress response. In: Becker JB, Breedlove SM & Crews D. (Eds.), Behavioural Endocrinology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp 287–324.
  6. Berman, C. M., J. Li, H. Ogawa, C. Ionica & H. Yin. (2007). Primate tourism, range restriction, and infant risk among Macaca thibetana at Mt. Huangshan, China. International Journal of Primatology. 28: 1123–1141
  7. MacKinnon, J. & MacKinnon, K. (1980). The behavior of wild spectral tarsiers. International Journal of Primatology . 1: 361-379.
  8. Palacios, J.F.G., Engelhardt, A., Agil, A., Hodges, K., Bogia, R. & Waltert, M. (2012). Status of, and conservation recommendations for, the Critically Endangered crested black macaque Macaca nigra in Tangkoko, Indonesia. Oryx . 46: 290-297.

Dominique Bertrand is a PhD Candidate in Physical Anthropology at the University of Buffalo.  http://buffalo.academia.edu/DominiqueBertrand

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