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A scant hour from Perth by ferry, tiny Rottnest Island hosts half a million tourists each year. The prime attraction is one of Australia’s most adorable native critters: the quokka. Having evolved on an island largely devoid of predators, quokkas are innately curious and approachable. That may explain why there are more than 8,000 Instagram photos with the hashtag #quokkaselfie, and that, in turn, may explain why their easygoing disposition could spell trouble.
Quokkas, designated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable, weigh between two-and-a-half and five kilograms and are roughly the size of house cats. They probably arrived on Rottnest and neighboring isles around 7,000 years ago, and for as long, the charismatic, grinning marsupials have scampered over hill and dale with hardly a care. The lack of predators was a boon for the population.
“I guarantee you, as soon as you get onto the island, you trip over the quokkas,” says Trish Fleming, a wildlife biologist at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. Fleming teamed up with a student researcher studying ecotourism issues and the pair conducted what they say is one of the first studies on the way quokkas contend with those selfie-obsessed tourists.
While there have been some horrific instances of outright animal abuse, a lack of fear can also affect the animals in indirect, yet equally destructive ways.
The study found that more than one in five human-quokka interactions resulted in the quokka displaying signs of nervousness, and quokkas at tourist sites spent less time foraging for food during the off-season. “If you have an adult that’s conditioned to human food, it is now teaching its offspring to come into human areas, that their food comes from humans,” says wildlife biologist Julie King, who studies the fearless endangered foxes of California’s Catalina Island. When the tourists go home, so does the food. With less food around, there can be more competition over limited resources. King says similar trends can even be seen in mainland protected areas, where habituated bears get themselves into trouble because they’re unable to feed as effectively once the campers pack up and the cold sets in.
The study also showed that quokkas are more social at tourist sites. Not only are there more of them, presumably because they’re attracted by all that free food, but they also interact with each other more often, which could make it easier for diseases to circulate. Fleming says the island’s quokka population is probably at capacity and ripe for the same kind of disease epidemic that recently sent California’s Channel Islands foxes into a death spiral.
The travel industry has largely embraced the idea of ecotourism with little knowledge of how it impacts animals. Fleming’s study is part of a growing effort among researchers to explore some of the subtle but pervasive downsides of ecotourism. “It’s a real privilege to be able to get close to wild animals, and I think sometimes people don’t appreciate that,” she says. Nor do they understand that their presence is felt long after they’re back home, their selfies forgotten until the next trip.