Ecological tourism has no effect on the presence of large mammals in the Amazon, according to a study that for the first time compares the biological diversity of ecotourism zones with that of protected areas. Furthermore, it can help to protect the biodiversity of areas that are not officially protected yet are vital in the ecological framework.
Since the UN began to promote ecological tourism at the end of the 1980's as a way of protecting the environment without resorting to its economic exploitation, the debate as to whether ecotourism is really beneficial has remained alive.
Aiming to answer such questions, two Spanish researchers spent four months in the middle of the Amazon to assess the presence of large mammals in Bonanza, a private estate used for ecotourism within the Manu Biosphere Reserve. The results of their study show that not only is ecotourism harmless to the biological richness of the area but it could even have a positive effect on the biodiversity of surrounding areas.
The study by Salvador Salvador (University of Gerona) and Miguel Clavero, (Doñana Biological Station-CSIC), in collaboration with Renata Leite from Duke University's Center for Tropical Conservation, has been published in the Mammalian Biology journal.
In their analysis of the Bonanza estate, the researchers found 41 species of large mammal out of the 48 species that have been documented in the whole reserve. According to Salvador, "we could not find any way in which the richness of species has been affected. No species sensitive to the presence of humans was lacking and although we were unable to calculate population density, species like the tapir (Tapirus terrestris) or the huangana (a local way of referring to another type of wild boar, the Tayassu peccary) were abundant, even compared to virgin forest areas.
As the study lasted for four months, the researchers were also able to compare the presence of fauna during the dry and wet seasons.
When we talk about ecotourism, Salvador warned that "we have to understand the difference because a [photographic] safari in Kenia is not the same as what we studied in the Amazon rainforest." The importance of the study lies in the fact that never before has the biodiversity of ecotourism zones been contrasted with that of protected areas, at least in the Amazon.
"The size of the ecotourism areas bears little significance in relation to the size of the extensive Amazon's ecosystem and yet some species had been found to be affected," said Salvador. One of them was the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), which is native to the Amazon and considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The expert pointed out that "these were some cases but no real comparison had been made until our study." Inadequate ecotourism practices that negatively affected the otter were mainly linked to river transport. For example, the boats used to transport tourists would come too close to the dens of the otters.
After four months of field work and interviews with the locals, the results show that Bonanza has "at least 85% of species". The expert added that "the species from pristine areas that were not found in Bonanza are likely to appear there, given that despite their rarity they are not considered particularly sensitive to human presence."
An important ecological role
Aside from verifying that the ecotourism areas were home to practically the same large mammal species as the indigenous rainforest, Salvador and his team discovered differences between different types of forest. "The Amazon is not homogenous. The forest around large rivers is very different to that of firm land," stated Salvador. "This type of forest is the most under threat as it is where settlers tend to establish themselves" due to its fertile soil rich in mineral sediments, brought by the rivers from the Andes and the simple fact that rivers are the equivalent of roads in the Amazon.
In their study, the researchers discovered that alluvial (floodable) forests "are very important because many species use them seasonally. There is a time of year with less rainfall in which fruit is mainly found in these forests," explained Salvador. The researcher said that this finding reinforces the theories of other authors and should be borne in mind when creating environment protection measures.
According to the biologist, "whether or not you protect an area of alluvial forest does not only have an impact on the fauna specific to that habitat but on the populations that extend across much greater areas." Currently, conservation policies tend to protect large, non flooded forest areas which are of "little interest to settlers because they are difficult to access and have unfertile soil. This means that conservation policy is of little cost to politicians," stated Salvador.
This is where the importance of ecotourism comes in. It tends to be concentrated around riversides due to ease of access but also because "these areas are home to species that are attractive, spectacular and easily visible such as the alligators, the giant otter and macaw clay licks," emphasised Salvador.
The results of the study suggest that forest around the riversides used for ecotourism can provide an alternative for the conservation of areas that are vital to the ecological framework of the Amazon - areas that are often excluded from officially protected areas.
Salvador, Salvador, Clavero, Miguel, Leite Pitman, Renata. "Large mammal species richness and habitat use in an upper Amazonian forest used for ecotourism", Mammalian Biology (76): 115-123, 2011.