Ecotourism is often hailed as a way to get people interested in threatened species and preserve natural habitats, but very few studies have actually been performed to examine the effect of ecotourism on the species being observed. A study of Hoatzin, pheasant-sized tropical birds found in the Amazon and the Orinoco deltas of South America, indicates that ecotourism disturbs wildlife and may have a negative impact on the health of animals.
Hoatzin nest communally. They build stick nests in trees overhanging water in seasonally flooded forest environments. Scientists wanted to see if the noise made by ecotourists disturbed the hoatzin and negatively impacted their nesting behavior. For example, did the excited talking of ecotourists when they observed the hoatzin cause the birds to leave the nests for periods when they would otherwise have been there to feed or protect the chicks?
To find out, scientists approached the nesting areas with recorded tourist conversations playing at various volumes. As the scientists reached a certain distance, the hoatzin would become visibly agitated. At a closer distance, the birds would flee the nests. The investigators discovered that the distance at which these two things occurred depended upon the volume at which they played the tourists' conversations.
After 10 weeks of silent approaches, the birds eventually became accustomed to the scientists and did not flee the nests as they approached. The sound of tourists' conversations, however, continued to frighten the birds even after 10 weeks of repetition. This is taken as positive evidence of an effect of ecotourism on the observed species. It also suggests that remaining silent when observing wildlife on ecotours may be a mitigation measure that tour operators could undertake to reduce stress on the observed animal species.Hoatzins and Ecotourism 2009Hoatzins and Ecotourism 2007