To Feed, or Not to Feed, That Is the Question

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There are large numbers of tour operators out there, all fighting to be your first choice on your next adventure. Tour operators want to make sure their clients are satisfied, and what is the best way to make tourists happy? Give them the wildlife sightings they have paid for. Unfortunately, one of the easiest ways to guarantee seeing an animal, is to offer a food source, and sadly regulations on wildlife feeding vary considerably across regions and countries. While some areas will have an all-out ban on these behaviours, other locations simply allow this practice to be carried out.

For the most part, the motivations behind tourists wanting to offer food to wildlife are usually kind hearted. Maybe you think that offering food can help counteract human-induced habitat destruction by offering food to animals living in struggling habitats. Perhaps you are hoping that by feeding wildlife you are improving their survival or breeding opportunities. You could also be looking for a way to connect meaningfully with the world around you in your search for contributing to conservation. Unfortunately, these good-natured actions can be extremely detrimental to the health of the animals, the ecosystems, and even yourself.

Behaviour changes

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An animal's ability to obtain food is essential to their survival, in fact, it is usually the primary factor in an animal's activity budget (how much time is spent on an activity). With plenty of food around, animals typically reduce their home ranges, often choosing to stay where the resources are and not migrate or explore of territories. This can cause huge problems for animal communities, since the species more likely to get food from humans, end up dominating ecosystems. This can also have enormous consequences in reducing local and global biodiversity, as the cascading impacts could affect predator-prey dynamics in additional ecosystems when species start avoiding areas where food is not continually offered by humans. Furthermore, most foraging and hunting behaviour is learned, typically from parents, so if older generations become less efficient at obtaining food, their offspring may never acquire the skills they need to survive on their own.

As a behavioural adaptation, wildlife are typically very wary of people. By staying at a distance from humans, they can escape any danger that we may pose to them. When animals lose their natural fear of humans, they are more susceptible to being injured or captured by people who do not have good intentions. As animals become more habituated to humans through the offering of food, they may also become more vulnerable to poaching, and potentially entering the illegal pet trade.

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Lack of Nutrition

It is no secret that most humans consume a lot of processed foods, and the research is out there telling us it isn’t good for our health. Well, not surprisingly, these foods are just as bad for wildlife. While much more research needs to be done on its impacts, most of the food that is offered to wildlife can lack the nutrients that species need to survive. For example, feeding bananas, chips, and rotten fish to dolphins does not fulfill their nutritional requirements, and can therefore have devastating effects on their growth and development as they become accustomed to eating these items. Some food provisions may also be completely foreign to an animal's digestive system, causing animals to eat objects that may be harmful to them. Eating an imbalanced diet can lead to a whole host of issues including obesity, metabolic syndromes and nutritional disorders, greatly impacting the overall fitness of an individual, and of species as a whole.

Disease transmission

Okay, this is a big one, lots of different factors at play here. Feeding and baiting wildlife often increases the number of animals present in a particular area as animals congregate around the food source. This high density of animals allows diseases to be more easily transmitted between member of the same or different species. The sheer volume of animals simply increases the number of interactions that occur between individuals, and in doing so, this allows for a higher number of opportunities for diseases to spread. If only a few individuals within a population are carrying a disease, and the animals are spread out as they normally are, then the prevalence of the diseases will likely remain low. However, when higher rates of contact occur at feeding sites, these diseases are given the opportunity to infect more individuals, becoming a more widespread issue.

Feeding sites can also result in the crowding of animals in a small area, which can lead to individuals experiencing higher stress levels and consequently, lowered immune function which simply further facilitates the transmission of diseases. These large congregations of individuals can also increase aggression and fighting, resulting in open wounds that act as additional pathways for diseases transmission.

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Not only can feeding sites result in higher wildlife diseases, but many species, especially primates, can be highly susceptible to diseases that can be transferred from humans to wildlife. In this scenario, uninformed tourists are adding strains of disease into populations whose immune systems are not evolved to fight back. Similarly, diseases may also be transmitted from wildlife to humans, in fact, the majority of new infectious diseases found in humans are coming from wildlife populations. These emerging pathogens can not only threaten wildlife, human, and domestic animal health, but also global biodiversity.

Increased Human-Wildlife Conflict

Feeding of wildlife can cause an increase in human-wildlife conflict since there are simply more interactions that occur due to the influx of animals in human-populated areas. By offering food, we are encouraging wild animals to view people as a food source, which can actually increase their aggressive behaviour towards people. Usually this becomes more problematic for animals that pose a safety risk for people, such as large carnivores and ungulates. Unfortunately, this can result in the killing of these animals to protect humans, leading to expressions like ‘a fed bear is a dead bear.’ Feeding may also increase vehicle-wildlife collisions in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as animals are more often found in towns, cities, around highways, as well as interacting with and becoming entangled in boats.

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What can you do to help?

One of the best ways you can ensure your money is going to support wildlife, is to make sure that your tour operator does not offer feeding as an experience. Allowing the tourism industry to continue promoting the feeding of wildlife greatly contributes the the misunderstanding of wildlife management. So by avoiding these companies it is sending the message that tourists want to respect wild animals! While it is important to make sure that you aren’t feeding wildlife on your tourism adventures, it is also essential that you're not unintentionally feeding wildlife around your home. Make sure to keep your garbage, recycling, and compost secure, protect your gardens, and make sure you aren’t leaving food around to attract wild animals.

Use your voice as a tourist, and a consumer to fight for wildlife!

References:

Corcoran, M.J., Wetherbee, B.M., Shivji, M.G., Poteski, M.D., Chapman, D.D., ad Harvey, G.M. (2013) Supplemental feeding for ecotourism reverses diel activity and alters movement patterns and spatial distribution of the southern stingray, Dasyatis americana. PLOS One, 8(3), e59235.  

Daszak, P., Cunningham, A., and Hyatt, A. (2000) Wildlife ecology - emerging infectious diseases of wildlife - threats to biodiversity and human health. Science, 287, 443-449.

Donaldson, R., Finn, H., Calver, M. (2010) Illegal feeding increases risk of boat-strike and entanglement of bottlenose dolphins. Pacific Conservation Biology, 16(3), 157-161.

Dubois, S., and Fraser, D. (2013) A framework to evaluate wildlife feeding in research, wildlife management, tourism and recreation. Animals, 3, 978-994.

Knapp, C.R., Hines, K.N., Zacharia, T.T., Perez-Heydrich, C., Iverson, J.B., Buckner, S.D., Halach, S.C., Lattin, C.R., and Romero, M. (2013) Physiological effects of tourism and associated food provisioning in an endangered iguana. Conservation Physiology, 1(1)

Menard, N., Foulquier, A., Vallet, D., Qarro, M., Le Gouar, P., Pierre, J.S. (2013) How tourism and pastoralism influence population demographic changes in a threatened large mammal species. Animal Conservation, doi:10.1111/acv.12063.

Orams, M.B. (2002) Feeding wildlife as a tourism attraction: a review of issues and impacts. Tourism Management, 23, 281-293.

Semeniuk, C.A.D., Speers-Roesch, B., and Rothley, K.D. (2007) Using fatty-acid profile analysis as an ecological indicator in the management of tourist impacts on marine wildlife: a case of stingray-feeding in the Caribbean. Environmental Management, 40, 665-677.

Sorensen, A., van Beest, F.M., and Brook, R.K. (2014) Impacts of wildlife baiting and supplemental feeding on infectious disease transmission risk: a synthesis of knowledge. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 113, 356-363.