Rise of eco-tourism may be putting wildlife in danger

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The Independent Online

Eco-tourism might be endangering wildlife, scientists warn today. Among those at risk are mongooses and meerkats in Africa and penguins in Antarctica, areas where environmental tourism is on the increase.

Eco-tourism might be endangering wildlife, scientists warn today. Among those at risk are mongooses and meerkats in Africa and penguins in Antarctica, areas where environmental tourism is on the increase.

Scientists in Chobe National Park, Botswana, have documented how tuberculosis was passed on to mongooses in the reserve, leading to two outbreaks of the disease. An outbreak also killed meerkats in the Kalahari desert.

Kathleen Alexander, a senior wildlife veterinary officer in Botswana, and her team, whose work is revealed in New Scientist magazine, believe the mongooses picked up the illness from contaminated rubbish heaps in the park. The researchers suspect the meerkats were infected from people, because no animals in the region are known carriers of human TB.

Eco-tourism is one of the fastest-expanding areas of tourism, growing at between 10 and 30 per cent annually. The United Nations has designated 2002 as the International Year of Eco-tourism.

Research suggests some mountain gorillas in Uganda might be catching mange from humansas they lose their fear of people. Thaddeus Graczyk, a parasitologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said: "People leave clothes behind, and curious gorillas play with them."

The mite Sarcoptes scabiei, which causes mange in furry animals and scabies in humans, causes fur loss in the gorillas. It makes them look less attractive to each other and, ironically, to the tourists who pay the local community to see the animals.

People have to be warned in the Antarctic not to go too close to penguins incubating eggs, which are on such a tight "energy budget" that any unnecessary rise in heart rate could force them to abandon the egg to look for food to survive, leaving the embryo to die.

Melissa Giese of the Australian Antarctic Division said: "There is also potential for the tourists to introduce and spread exotic diseases. If it ever did occur, the effect would be catastrophic."

Eco-tourism is a huge source of revenue for wildlife conservation, particularly in Africa, but Dr Alexander thinks contact between animals and humans should be minimised to reduce the threat of infection.

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