My research focuses on the ecological consequences of tourism and visitor use to parks and protected areas. The activities that I am interested in are all legal uses of parks and protected areas and the negative consequences of tourism that concern me are those that are the result of carelessness or ignorance. However, the integrity of parks and protected areas – both in the United States and abroad – are threatened by illegal actions as well. Poaching, logging, and illegal encroachment are of great concern for protected areas around the world. While researching issues of national security on federal lands, I came across an interesting opinion piece published this year (online only at the time of writing this post) in Trends in Ecology and Evolution by William Laurance; a professor out of Australia with a research focus on conservation biology. In the piece, Laurance speculates that the mere action of doing research in protected areas may have the added benefit of safeguarding the area.
Laurance uses published literature, anecdotal evidence, and observations to conclude that researchers may actively and passively contribute to the protection of areas where they do field research. From an active prospective, researchers have been known to advocate for the establishment of protected areas where they work. Indirectly, the presence of researchers may deter poachers and discourage other illegal activities from occurring. A study from a protected area in Africa showed that areas with research activities had higher abundances of wildlife and lower levels of illegal activities.
Less directly, researchers can advocate for ecotourism economies in the areas where they work and encourage conservation attitudes and behaviors in local communities. Some scientists have even set up community-based conservation programs. Just increasing the publicity of an area has also been shown to decrease illegal activities in protected areas as poachers and “encroachers” (yes, I believe I just made-up that word) are less likely to enter locations that are overrun with tourists.
Now, Laurance is quick to point out that the protection afforded by scientific activities on protected lands may be limited. For example, maybe researchers are choosing locations which are already relatively free of illegal activities as a personal safety concern? Not to mention that scientific activities themselves may have negative impacts on protected areas. A few minutes looking into the recreation literature will show that certain wildlife species can be easily disturbed by even “low-key” activities such hiking and wildlife viewing. Not to mention that field work often involves accessing undisturbed locations and as the recreation ecology literature tells us, initial use of an area has the greatest impact. It would be reasonable to assume that scientists may cause some of the same impacts to protected areas as recreationists do.
The take-home message is that more research needs to be done to see if the simple act of “doing science” has positive unintended (and sometimes intended) consequences for parks and protected areas. Overall, I think the opinion piece will at least get scientists thinking about the impacts that their research activities have at a local level.
Laurance, W.F. (2013) Does research help to safeguard protected areas? Trends in Ecology and Evolution. (Available online Feb. 22nd, 2013).