Is Antarctic Ecotourism Killing Penguins?

Although taking people to the giant icy hunk of land at the bottom of the world brings attention and awareness to the area's environmental issues, there are risks involved for the continent's avian inhabitants.

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14 januar 2015, 6:11am


Image via Wray Grimaldi

Since the 1950s, ecotourism in Antarctica has been a big, complicated business. Although taking people to the giant icy hunk of land at the bottom of the world brings attention and awareness to the area's environmental issues, there are risks involved for the continent's avian inhabitants. In 2006, 400 gentoo penguins died of avian pox, and two years later another outbreak moved through the same colony, this one with a mortality rate of 60 percent. Both incidents have now been linked to human pathogens. And thanks to the growth in Antarctic ecotourism, this trend could continue, warns an article in the New Scientist last month.

Penguin populations have been so isolated for so long that they haven't built up resistances to common diseases, and some experts say that as more humans show up on the shores of the seventh continent, the flightless birds will be at greater and greater risk. Wray Grimaldi of the University of Otago in Dunedin told the New Scientist, "The effects of both a growing tourism industry and research presence will not be without consequences."

Present protection and monitoring programs have been put in place by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IATTO). There are various ways tourists can avoid introducing dangerous pathogens to vulnerable species, with the IATTO website supplying pages on decontamination guidelines and pest reduction. And various restrictions for ships and tourist numbers are in place under the Antarctic Treaty—but they're not sophisticated enough to cover the increasingly obvious biological threats. There is currently also no plan for disease emergence monitoring. As "last chance" or "doomsday tourism" has seen ship-borne tourism activities in the area increase by 430 percent in 14 years, and land-based tourists by 757 percent over the past decade, there have been no adjustments to policies to protect wildlife from the resulting additional biological threats.

Change isn't easy, especially when any amendments to regulations need to be be agreed upon and enforced by all countries with a presence in the Antarctic. Phil Tracey, a policy officer for the Australian Antarctic Division told VICE, "Questions associated to the environmental impact of tourism are under active consideration among all the Antarctic nations, including Australia, to make sure tourism is managed appropriately." Currently, he wasn't aware of any proposals to further protect Antarctic flora and fauna.

Michael Lueck, an associate professor of tourism at Auckland University of Technology, said that ecotourists can help Antarctica by acting as ambassadors for the continent after their trips, providing a boost in activism and donations. But he's mindful of the environmental consequences if tourism is poorly handled. "There are certain operators that are members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators and they're usually doing a pretty good job," he said. "The main concern is for non-members, because there is no specific regulation, that they can go there and there is potential risk. It's too vague over all."

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