Yolande Stander From The Garden Route Media Rapports

6th January 2014
His focus is on understanding the risks of pathogen transmission from the thousands of tourists visiting sanctuaries and other primate centres around the world. He has conducted surveys on sustainable primate tourism throughout Malaysia and Japan and hope to continue work in South Africa as well as conduct surveys in Bali, Gibraltar and Belize.

Muehlenbein praised the region's primate sanctuary Monkeyland for its strict protocols on primate interaction and promoting responsible ecotourism.

"Nature-based tourism accounts for a growing proportion of international tourism activity. Revenue generated by such activities can enhance economic opportunities for local residents, support environmental education, and protect the natural and cultural heritage of the area, including the conservation of biodiversity. But because of their genetic relatedness with humans, other primates are particularly susceptible to human infections," Muehlenbein said.

The major infections that can threaten primate populations are usually respiratory viruses and bacteria. "But these animals can also be very sensitive to our herpes viruses, like the ones that cause coldsores, and chickenpox. Many primates have died from metapneumovirus and polio transmitted from humans."

He believes that therefore disease monitoring systems and guidelines should be established to ensure the well-being of wildlife.

Muehlenbein said it was critical to understand tourist motivations and behaviors to recognise how future tourist education could minimise risks to primates. "Our current study at Monkeyland utilises a new survey that focuses on tourist motivations regarding environmental behaviors, their knowledge of environmental problems, their willingness to take risks, and their affinity for wildlife. We collected 491 survey responses during our recent visit and will be coming back with four of my graduate students in March 2014 to collect an addition 500 responses."

"We are generally a species with intensive affinity for close interaction with monkeys and apes. The internet is full of pictures of people holding or feeding primates. Many professional primatologists are guilty of this as well, with their own websites or books full of pictures of them holding hands with chimpanzees, or allowing a monkey to crawl on them. Famous actors are portrayed in documentaries caring for orphaned orangutans, setting a further bad example that close contact is acceptable. 

"Why do we wish to participate in such risky activities? Young primates are very cute, adults of many species can be quite neotenous, and we can readily see behaviors in these animals that mirror our own.  These reasons seem to outweigh common sense sometimes."

Muehlenbein and his team's ultimate goal was to collect 10 000 responses from people from all parts of the world. "This information can hopefully be used to develop educational materials for ecotourists, travel organisations, destination communities and health professionals alike. A line of communication among conservation professionals, ecotourism practitioners, and travel medicine specialists is long overdue."

He said the best way to support research like this was to provide patronage to organisations like Monkeyland which supported primate conservation and education through "proper respect for the animals, with primary messages about how we must not keep primates as pets". "And the best thing to do for wild animals is to keep them wild."

Monkeyland marketing manager Lara Mostert said they did not allow any touching of the animals. "Petting has absolute no conservation value. People often don't think about what is best for the animals and petting is definitely not in their best interest," Mostert said.