UM biologist, students promote research on sustainable ecotourism
By Erin Garrett
University of Mississippi
Ecotourism is a billion dollar industry that offers travel enthusiasts an intimate look at the world’s most breathtaking natural environments. While ecotourism is often considered synonymous with sustainable travel, its recent growth in popularity could negatively impact local wildlife and ecosystems.
“Many of us hope to one day experience the thrill of seeing elephants roaming the African savannah, or the colorful fish and anemones that adorn a tropical coral reef, or another fascinating creature in its natural habitat,” said said Richard Buchholz, University of Mississippi Professor of Biology. “Unfortunately, as the human population grows and international travel becomes more accessible, these natural places will not survive the onslaught of tourists without careful management.
“If we want future generations to be able to see firsthand the wonders of the planet, rather than just reading in books about ‘what was’, we must learn to live sustainably.”
Buchholz, director of UM’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Research, is working to organize an international research network focused on studying the behavioral effects of ecotourism and developing more sustainable recommendations. .
When the pandemic brought world travel to a halt, a positive result emerged. The lack of human disturbance in natural areas has allowed wildlife to emerge and become more visible, Buchholz said.
“Obviously the mere human presence had a negative effect on animal behavior,” he said. “We realized we would need an international approach to understanding the ways in which different human cultures might impact wildlife ranging from butterflies to whales.”
Buchholz and several of his doctoral students traveled to Costa Rica in July to help organize a workshop at the Animal Behavior Society’s annual meeting. The workshop, “Intersections between Animal Behaviour, Conservation and Ecotourism,” served as a starting point for scientists, students, economists and industry representatives to begin a discussion on sustainable ecotourism.
Jessica Stamn was one such student. The group’s willingness to address conservation issues impressed her, she said.
“Everyone involved in the workshop had a common goal of understanding the impacts that ecotourism could have on wildlife, and that passion was felt throughout the workshop,” Stamn said. “I felt particularly inspired when I met the participants who were not involved in academia, but who were still committed to promoting conservation through animal behavior research.
“Not only did I get to meet some really interesting people who were working on some really cool projects, but I also got exposed to a ton of conservation-related jobs that I hadn’t known about before.”
Stamn and her Ole Miss classmates will work with national and international collaborators to compile information from the workshop and highlight key issues surrounding ecotourism and animal behavior. These questions focused on the influence of ecotourism on species reproduction, communication patterns and ecological soundscapes, among others.
Buchholz plans to use the connections he made at the meeting to continue building a research network.
“We will investigate sources of funding that could allow the network to compare and contrast the answers to these research questions in different study systems – that is, different types of animal-tourism interactions – across the world,” he said. “Ultimately, we will link them to the United Nations goals for a sustainable future.”
UM’s Office of Global Engagement awarded Buchholz an International Collaboration Grant to fund the project. The Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, Department of Biology, and Graduate School also contributed travel assistance.
For more information about the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Research, visit https://cbcr.olemiss.edu/.