Scientists have discovered that individual people on foot can be more disturbing to wildlife than a busload of sightseers.
Victoria University’s Dr Patrick-Jean Guay and Deakin University’s Dr Mike Weston studied the response of nearly 40 waterbird species to incursions into their wetland habitat by walkers, cyclists, cars and buses.
Dr Guay said while there were variations among species’ responses across the 730 tests conducted, one surprising pattern did emerge.
“We found that across species motor vehicles always evoked shorter flight-initiation distances, meaning that motor vehicles were less disturbing to the birds than groups of walkers and even single walkers,” Dr Guay said.
He said disruption of the normal activity or physiology of wildlife by humans was generally regarded as a conservation problem, yet it was widely assumed that pedestrians were less disruptive.
Dr Guay said the implication was that protecting wildlife from human disturbance in sensitive areas may actually be better achieved by promoting access to those in cars and minibuses, rather than pedestrians.
“Not only have motor vehicles been shown to disturb the wildlife less but they are also capable of carrying more people in one visit, potentially reducing the overall number of incursions into the habitat,” he said.
“Organised ecotourism where a busload of tourists is driven through conservation areas may be preferable to that same number of people having free range to walk through that area.”
The study ‘Buses, cars, bicycles and walkers; the influence of the type of human transport on the flight responses of waterbirds’ was published in the latest issue of PLOS ONE scientific journal.
Field work was conducted at the Western Treatment Plant in Werribee, near Melbourne. The Ramsar-listed wetland holds internationally significant numbers of many waterbird species and is a renowned birdwatching site.
The research project was funded by Melbourne Water.