By Dr Stuart Semple
Dr Stuart Semple is Director of the Institute of Primate Tourism Research Centre for Research in Evolutionary and Environmental Anthropology Department of Life Sciences at Roehampton University.
Here he discusses his research into the way close contact with tourists can cause monkeys stress.
Monkeys and Tourism – A Price to Pay?
By Dr Stuart Semple, University of Roehampton, London.
For many visitors to Asia and North Africa, encounters with wild monkeys in parks and forests, around temples and even in the outskirts of towns and cities provide memorable holiday experiences. The playful nature of these apparently tame animals makes them engaging to watch and tempting to interact with. Indeed in many places, tourists are actively encouraged to touch, feed and have their picture taken with the photogenic primates. Such encounters may, however, come at a high price for the animals involved.
In our research group at the University of Roehampton, we have been working on exploring the impacts of tourism on one species of monkey, the Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus). This primate is native to Algeria and Morocco, and famous for the introduced population in Gibraltar. Recently declared an Endangered Species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), its populations in the wild have been declining markedly over the last thirty years. Tourism related to these macaques has the potential to make a significant contribution to the conservation of the species and the unique environment it inhabits. However, just as with other species, tourists may pose problems for the welfare and conservation of this species.
Scratching the itch
Working at a popular tourist site in the Middle Atlas Mountains, we first looked at the potential effect of interactions between tourists and Barbary macaques on the emotional welfare of these animals. Just like people, macaques scratch themselves when they are nervous, so we were able to use the rates of this scratching behaviour to measure their anxiety. In addition, we picked up faecal samples, and from these measured the levels of stress hormones, which give a measure of whether things have escalated from anxiety to more serious physiological stress.
The interactions that we saw between the tourists and macaques fell into three categories: neutral, which included taking photographs of the macaques; feeding, where tourists give food to the animals; and aggression, where tourists throw things at the macaques or actually hit them. All three kinds of interactions with the tourists markedly increased the macaques’ anxiety level.
It came as no revelation to find that aggression and feeding made the macaques anxious, but we were surprised that tourists doing the usual tourist thing of taking photographs also seems to make the animals uneasy. It is likely this is because the tourists just get too close and tend to look the macaques straight in their eyes as they get ready to take the photo; this direct eye contact is a threat in macaque body language.
Only the aggressive interactions with tourists seemed to lead to the macaques becoming physiologically stressed. Elevated levels of stress hormones can be as bad for primates as they are for humans – leading to decreased ability to fight off disease, increased risk of heart disease and reduced fertility.
Getting too close
A subsequent study looked at how tourist ‘pressure’ – tourist numbers, their proximity and the time tourists were present at the site – might affect the behaviour of the macaques.
Intriguingly, high tourist numbers and tourists being present for long periods didn’t seem to have negative effects. By contrast, proximity did; the closer tourists got, the more aggressive the macaques were to each other and the less time they spent being friendly (grooming each other). These animals clearly don’t like close crowding any more than we do.
A final study compared the health of animals in the tourist macaque group with that of animals in other groups in the area that don’t interact with tourists. The macaques in the tourist group were found to harbour more parasite species; this may be due to the food on offer from tourists concentrating the macaques in one small area, which increases the chance of passing parasites from one animal to another. In addition, the tourist-exposed animals were fatter and had poorer coat condition than their ‘wild’ counterparts, most likely due – at least in part – to their rather unnatural and unhealthy diet.
Taken together, these findings are worrying, and similar effects are likely to be happening at other tourism sites where macaques – or other monkeys – are found. It is not all doom and gloom, though. Enforcement of some simple guidelines for tourists would make a big difference to the health and emotional well-being of the animals they meet.
What can be done?
Forbidding people from feeding monkeys, and providing information on how to behave to avoid making them nervous (don’t get too close, don’t look them in the eyes…) would be great first steps. Above all, tourists should be encouraged to see monkeys as the wild animals they are, and treat and respect them accordingly. This would also encourage the monkeys to return to their more natural patterns of behaviour, and re-frame the tourist experience. As great as the draw of interacting with tame monkeys might be for some, the thrill of observing a wild primate acting out its daily life is arguably even greater.
So if you see wild monkeys on your travels, please do think of the effects that your actions may have on them. Follow the RIGHT-tourism principles that Care for the Wild has developed to make sure you are a monkey-friendly tourist. Tourism offers great hope as a tool for primate conservation, generating revenue for local people, fostering support for species and protection of their habitat. It is up to us all to ensure that we do everything we can to ensure the benefits of tourism are not outweighed by the costs paid by the animals involved.