ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Brazil's Pantanal, a vast wetland situated in the center of South America, has become the next frontier for leading-edge eco-tourists in search of ever more exotic flora and fauna. "It's where people go after they've been to Africa," says Shannon Bouton, a Ph.D. student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) at the University of Michigan.
This month, Bouton is publishing the results of her unique study of a wading bird colony in the Pantanal in the February issue of Conservation Biology, the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology. The article, co-authored with Peter C. Frederick (University of Florida), is titled "Stakeholders' Perceptions of a Wading Bird Colony as a Community Resource in the Brazilian Pantanal." Unlike other research projects that consider only the biological effects of tourism, Bouton has combined her biological research with a study of how the colony serves as a resource for the local community. Her practical suggestions for meeting the twin goals of managing and developing tourism and conserving the colony have attracted the attention of top government officials and diplomats in Brazil and have made her study site at Porto da Fazenda a model for similar efforts in the region.
Today, as a result of those suggestions, local forestry police have posted a guard in front of the colony to control the behavior of tourists and fishermen. A local conservation group, Associação Ecológica Melgassense (AMEC) has established a staffed observation post that is occupied year-round to protect the birds and the forest. AMEC trains young people from the community as guides to take tourists along newly constructed trails at a safe distance from the colony and runs workshops for local children and adults so that everyone is aware of the biology of the birds, their importance to the community and how to behave so as not to disturb them.
"The tourists really appreciate the new amenities," Bouton says. "Now there's a little shop to buy cool drinks, an orientation talk that tells them what to look for and well-informed guides to accompany them on the trail. Those who prefer not to walk can take advantage of spotting scopes on top of an observation tower. Tourism has increased ten-fold since our study, and at the same time the birds are happier and many more are staying in the colony."
The problem, as in many other areas that have become popular eco-tourism destinations, is that the influx of humans can destroy the very wonders that the tourists are flocking to see. In the case of the Pantanal, the tourist industry is still quite new, with very little infrastructure or regulation. "As the number of people, boats, and hotels in the Pantanal grow, local wildlife populations are going to be increasingly disturbed," Bouton says.
Breeding colonies of wading birds are a particularly spectacular feature throughout the wetland and have become one of the major tourist destinations. Porto da Fazenda is located in the northeast Pantanal, in the state of Mato Grosso, on the banks of the Cuiabá River. During the dry season (June-October) thousands of wood storks move into the area, nesting in densely packed groups at the tops of trees. By the time Bouton arrived, it was clear that regular visits by tourists were already changing the birds' nesting success and breeding behavior. "Guides took tourists on walking tours through the middle of the colony and drove boats directly under nests overhanging the river. There were even reports of fireworks being set off to make the birds fly," Bouton says. "The perception in the community was that the birds were moving out, and that uncontrolled tourism was responsible."
The first part of the study documented the potential effects of human activities on nesting and found that viewing from boats caused significant nest desertion and breeding failure. "Would you want to live in a place where people drove right up under your nest with noisy motor boats, talking and laughing all the while?" Bouton says. In addition, she points out, when the parents leave the nests there are many predators waiting to attack the eggs and the chicks.
Next, she and her team interviewed stakeholders in the community, including licensed guides, hotel owners and managers, boat drivers and local landowners. Tourists were given questionnaires to complete and return on site. Bouton developed a model of the interactions among the various groups, identified the areas of potential conflict, and developed strategies that have since been implemented for satisfying tourists while not unduly disturbing the birds.
Bouton's project was made possible by funding from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Chicago Zoological Society and the Central Florida Chapter of the Explorer's Club.
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