A touch of neon halts harassment of New Zealand seals
It’s an old saw among officials responsible for protecting everything from porcupines to penguins: “We don’t manage wildlife, we manage people.” Now, researchers in New Zealand have put a neon twist on preventing people from bugging wildlife. They found that simply placing a volunteer wearing a bright orange vest at a waterfall frequented by fur seals cut harassment by tourists by two-thirds.
Wildlife tourism has become a booming global industry that has helped fund conservation and made some animals worth more alive than dead. But enthusiastic tourists and tour operators can also pose problems if they intrude too much on whales, seabirds and other popular wild attractions. The result can be reduced breeding and even death.
In New Zealand, one popular wild attraction is the predatory fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri). Although the government has rules against harassing the animals and requiring observers to stay at least 20 meters away, “humans do not always respect unenforced regulations,” a trio of marine mammal experts note in Conservation Biology. As a result, young seals visiting a popular tourist spot — Ohau Stream waterfall on the South Island of New Zealand – frequently face visitors who try to pet, feed or throw objects to them.
To see if they could reduce that misbehavior, the researchers tried a bit of psychology. For 68 days in 2008 and 2009, they observed the behavior of 254 tourist groups when seals were present. For some of the time, however, one of the researchers – a young woman – donned a bright orange vest and simply sat silently on a rock near the viewing platform overlooking the seals. When this “official-looking volunteer” was present, just 13% of the groups had at least one person who harassed young seals. When the neon-draped volunteer wasn’t there, however, the total jumped to 38.4%
They difference “indicates that the presence of someone who appears to be official deters people from harassing wildlife even if it is unclear to them what behaviors are permitted,” they conclude. And “use of volunteers,” they add, “is cheaper than the use of paid enforcement.” Plus, almost anyone looks just dashing in orange. – David Malakoff | December 8, 2010
Source: ACEVEDO-GUTIÉRREZ, A., ACEVEDO, L., & BOREN, L. (2010). Effects of the Presence of Official-Looking Volunteers on Harassment of New Zealand Fur Seals. Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01611.x
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