Doctor of Philosophy
Environment and Sustainability
A rise in tourism revenue worldwide has included an increase in the number of travellers seeking experiences with the natural world. Commonly referred to as ecotourists, these visitors typically hail from Western countries and favour locations that allow them to connect with nature in ways that they consider sustainable and ethical. However well-meaning, these ecotourist ventures are complex because, while tourism revenue may help protect fragile ecosystems, an increase in tourists can expose local fauna to potentially deadly diseases.
Primates are a salient example of this double-edged sword because they are a popular attraction among travellers, meaning they may benefit from increased habitat protection while being at risk from disease transmission via humans. The aim of this project was to explore impacts of ecotourism on a wild group of hybrid macaques (Macaca fascicularis x M. nemestrina) that live alongside two wildlife rehabilitation centers in Sepilok, Malaysia. I used several methodological approaches to assess the experiences of visitors to the centers, as well as the impact of tourists on macaque aggression and feeding and ranging behavior. I also measured the parasite species richness and prevalence of helminths from faecal samples collected during full-day follows.
Most visitors to Sepilok were motivated by a desire to see orang-utans and were largely unaware of the risks of disease transmission. Visitor-directed aggression from macaques was less frequent and less intense when compared to other tourist sites throughout Asia. The macaques frequently fed on provisions intended for the rehabilitating wildlife and rested more after doing so. The group tended to avoid the tourist area during peak visiting hours but still spent a considerable amount of time in close proximity to visitors. Parasite species richness among the macaques appeared low compared to other sites.
This research highlights some of the complications associated with nature-based tourism that is intended to support conservation. Curtailing undesirable tourist behavior is difficult, but these results demonstrate that successful education and staff supervision can have tangible effects on primate well-being by reducing direct contact with humans while also providing supplemental nutrition that can bolster immune function.
Summary for Lay Audience
Although tourism programs can help conserve areas that are at risk for development, it can also cause problems by exposing wild animals and fragile ecosystems to human activity. Visitors may unknowingly cause damage to plants by straying from the path, or their physical presence might disrupt nearby animals. Perhaps most importantly, people are capable of sharing diseases with wild animals. Primates are especially vulnerable to this threat because they are so closely related to us and can die after becoming infected with human diseases.
Many tourists are unaware of these risks and seek experiences with primates throughout the tropics. This means that it is crucial for researchers to understand what conditions might allow for diseases to pass from humans to primates. I wanted to help address this issue by studying a group of wild macaques that live near a popular tourist destination in Sabah, Malaysia. People come from all over the world to visit the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Center and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center, which take in orphaned and injured animals with the hope of someday returning them to the wild.
I studied the macaques and tourists at Sepilok in order to understand how tourist beliefs and behavior affect the well-being of the macaques. People were not allowed to feed the animals, which meant that the macaques were rarely aggressive towards tourists. The macaques avoided the tourist area slightly during the busiest parts of the day, but they still spent a lot of their time near people without taking much notice of them. The group was frequently observed taking fruit and vegetables from the orang-utans and sun bears, and they tended to rest more on days when they did so. This easy access to food may explain why the group had fewer intestinal parasites compared to other monkeys across Asia, but more research is needed to know for sure. These results will help both researchers and rehabilitation center staff identify the effects of tourists on wild primates with the hope of developing education programs to limit the negative effects of tourism on both people and wildlife.
Gilhooly, Lauren J., "Ethnoprimatology and Nature-Based Tourism: An Exploration of Macaque Ecology and Behaviour at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Center in Sabah, Malaysia" (2020). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 6868.