Wild orangutans stressed by eco-tourists in North Borneo, but not chronic
IU anthropologist Michael P. Muehlenbein can't say yet what makes the wild orangutans of Borneo deal with stress differently than other species in other locations, but an analysis of orangutan stress hormone levels recorded before, during and after the apes interacted in the wild with eco-tourists found evidence of acute elevation of the stress hormone cortisol the day of an interaction, with levels then returning to baseline afterward.
By analyzing fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (fGM) levels of orangutans in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah, Malaysia, the team led by Muehlenbein was looking to, among other things, gather evidence about levels of disturbance on wildlife exposed to eco-tourism, a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry that is growing annually.
Red Ape Encounters, a community-owned and -operated eco-tourism program in Sabah that assisted with the research, facilitates the only trekking program for wild orangutans in the world.
"Revenue can enhance economic opportunities for the locales involved, and it can support environmental education, protect natural and cultural heritage, and be used to conserve biodiversity," Muehlenbein said. "But rapid, unmonitored development of nature-based tourism can also lead to habitat degradation and negative impacts on the very species we wish to protect.
Given the increasing demand of tourists to encounter wild orangutans, it is critical to evaluate any potential physiological effects this and future programs may have on this charismatic and endangered species."
Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus morio) are considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which produces the Red List of Threatened Species.
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.
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