AboutZoos, Since 2008


Bornean orang­utans not chron­i­cally stressed by eco-​tourism, surprisingly

pub­lished 16 March 2012 | mod­i­fied 21 April 2012

Eco-​tourism can gen­er­ate, besides employ­ment and improved local eco­nom­ics, impor­tant rev­enue to sup­port nature con­ser­va­tion. How­ever, this kind of tourism, when uncon­trolled, can also lead to habi­tat degra­da­tion and adverse impacts on the species we want to pro­tect. Con­stant expo­sure of the ani­mals to tourists and the stress thereof can lead to unde­sir­able effects in the ani­mals, such as impaired growth, repro­duc­tion, and immunity.

These chronic stress effects have been recog­nised in wild pop­u­la­tions of a vari­ety of species in eco-​tourism areas.

There­fore, when the core busi­ness of tourism organ­i­sa­tions is to organ­ise close encoun­ters between endan­gered pri­mate species and tourists, much care should be taken to avoid such chronic stress. In the case of Bornean orang­utans (Pongo pyg­maeus morio), which are an endan­gered species accord­ing the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species, there are no signs of chronic stress. At least not in the Lower Kin­abatan­gan Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary in Sabah, Malaysia, where eco-​tourism trekkings are con­ducted by Red Ape Encoun­ters*, a community-​owned and –oper­ated pro­gramme. This was revealed in a study led by anthro­pol­o­gist Michael P. Muehlen­bein, and recently pub­lished in PLoS ONE. The researchers mea­sured lev­els of glu­co­cor­ti­coid metabo­lite in — eas­ily to obtain — fecal sam­ples of the orang­utans. This fecal glu­co­cor­ti­coid metabo­lite is a good indi­ca­tor of the lev­els of cor­ti­sol, the stress hor­mone, in the animal’s blood after a stress­ful event. The study shows that fecal glu­co­cor­ti­coid metabo­lite lev­els were sig­nif­i­cantly ele­vated in sam­ples col­lected the day after the tourists vis­ited the sanc­tu­ary. This is indica­tive of ele­vated cor­ti­sol pro­duc­tion on vis­i­ta­tion day. As the glu­co­cor­ti­coid metabo­lite lev­els return to nor­mal after the vis­its, and are not per­ma­nently raised, the sci­en­tists con­clude that these orang­utans are not chron­i­cally stressed. Mr. Muehlen­bein can’t say yet what makes the wild orang­utans of Bor­neo deal with stress dif­fer­ently than other species in other loca­tions, but the effects of stress on wildlife pop­u­la­tions are likely con­text depen­dent. So, the way Red Ape Encoun­ters con­duct their tours could be less stress­ful for the orang­utans, than other, more fre­quent and intense, tours organ­ised in other locations.


*Eco-​tourism guide­lines used by Red Ape Encoun­ters include lim­it­ing vis­i­ta­tion groups to seven peo­ple for no more than one hour; exclud­ing sick tourists; main­tain­ing a 10-​meter min­i­mum dis­tance; and requir­ing appro­pri­ate behav­ior. The com­pany hosts about 250 tourists per year, with most of the vis­i­tor activ­ity cen­tered on the two wild habit­u­ated orang­utans used in the study: Jenny, an adult approx­i­mately 32 years old, and her 11-​year-​old son Etin.

(Sources: PloS ONE, 15.03.2012; News­wise, 15.03.2012)

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