Tourism And Free-Ranging Dogs: A Risky Combination
Dogs in many societies roam free, and they may prey upon or disturb wild animals. Free-ranging dogs living near protected areas are especially concerning, as they may have greater access to wild animal populations. In Chile, for example, 88% of rural dogs are free-ranging. Although national parks and other protected areas require dogs to be on leash, studies suggest that people in Chile (and elsewhere) often disregard leash rules.
The role that humans — and especially tourists — play in encouraging free-ranging dogs to enter protected areas is currently unclear, though research has shown that free-ranging dogs tend to follow humans they do not know. This study attempts to understand how tourists influence free-ranging dog behavior, including which factors encourage dogs to follow tourists into protected areas and the nature of tourist-dog interactions.
The study took place in southern Chile on Navarino Island, part of the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, during the tourist season between December 2015 and April 2016. This site was chosen because of expected growth in tourism and residents in the coming years, meaning that more dogs are expected to be moving through its wilderness areas. The researchers distributed surveys to hostels and tourism operators in Puerto Williams, the main town on the island, asking tourists to describe their encounters with dogs and to indicate where (if any) dogs were sighted on their hikes. They also placed camera-traps along trekking trails to gather visual evidence of dogs’ movement in relation to tourists.
The researchers received 81 completed questionnaires. One-third of respondents said that dogs followed them during their hikes — for as little as three minutes or as much as four days. 84% reported that they did not feed the dogs they encountered. However, there was no significant relationship between tourists feeding dogs and being followed by dogs. Nor was there a relationship between tourists’ fear of dogs and dogs following them.
Tourists were also given an opportunity to provide open commentary about free-ranging dogs in the survey. 43% showed some concern, especially regarding the harm dogs can cause on the environment and worries that they’d been abandoned. Other concerns included a general fear of dogs, seeing dogs in poor health, and frustration that they deter wild animal sightings. Some participants noted that the dogs seemed well and had no problem with them.
From the camera traps, researchers recorded sightings of 32 individual dogs (about a quarter of the total population of free-ranging dogs in Puerto Williams) over 87 days. They found one dog for every 28 people. In 70% of camera trap sightings, dogs were classified as accompanying tourists. Only one dog was seen on a leash, and 40% wore collars. Researchers found that dogs accompanied hikers with large backpacks (on multi-day trips) or small backpacks (day trips), and some followed hikers for several days. 65% of dogs identified on the camera traps were not spotted again on any of the three trails, suggesting that the dogs returned off-trail.
Tourists surveyed in this study thought that dogs followed them more for companionship than for food. The authors also wonder whether free-ranging dogs seek out tourists because they lack positive interactions with their guardians at home. They suggest two strategies to reduce the negative impact of free-ranging dogs: First, outreach to local animal guardians is needed to encourage more responsible guardianship (and remind people of leash laws). Second, tourists need to be educated about the impacts of free-ranging dogs and how to engage with them responsibly. Advocates should work together with the tourism sector, government officials, and veterinarians to enact change.