National Parks in Brazil have a dual goal: to protect natural ecosystems while also offering the public opportunities to carry out scientific research, environmental education and recreational activities.

The Cavernas do Peruaçu National Park harbours a magnificent complex of caves and several large mammals, representing 70% of the large mammal species found within the Cerrado region of South America. Since 2015, when the Park was opened to tourists, there have been increasing numbers of visitors, potentially reaching 10,000 visits in 2022. How can we ensure that tourism in such an ecologically important environment does not cause adverse impacts that undermine the objective of safeguarding biodiversity?

A cave and a cliff face in Cavernas do Peruaçu National Park

Cavernas do Peruaçu National Park. Photos: Marcell Soares (left) & Biotrópicos (right).

A recently published study by our team of researchers from Instituto Biotrópicos and the University of Brasilia suggests that the early years of tourist activity in Cavernas do Peruaçu National Park had only a modest impact on mammals. Using images captured on camera traps installed in the Peruaçu River valley from 2011, before the Park was opened to visitors, we assessed whether the use of trails and the activity period of mammals changed on tourist trails as visitation increased. We investigated four aspects of response: number of species using the trails, intensity of trail use, and activity period and activity level of two species with diurnal habits.

Researchers setting up camera traps in the Park

Researchers setting up camera traps in the Park. Photos: Marcell Soares.

We found that tourism did not affect the use of the trails by mammals such as ocelots, peccaries, pacas, coatis and deer. However, the rock cavy, a nationally threatened rodent classified as Vulnerable on the Brazilian National List of Endangered Species, showed avoidance of tourist trails after tourism began.

There has been concern about negative impacts since the Park opened to tourism, as the tourist area is in a fragile ecosystem. Thus, visitors are guided by a certified local tour guide and restricted to a small area of ​​the Park, the Peruaçu River valley. Each guide can take eight visitors at a time and there is a daily cap on visits to each attraction. Visitors are registered and informed of rules and restrictions.

Rock cavy

The rock cavy, Kerodon rupestris, a nationally threatened rodent. Photos: Marcell Soares.

This is the first study in Brazil that has carried out a before and after assessment of mammal responses to tourism. Scientific studies on the impact of ecotourism in the country are scarce, and most national parks do not have adequate long-term monitoring.

The results of this work are optimistic for ecotourism in protected areas, but we urge caution as these are only the early years of tourism in this National Park and it may take some time for any impact on mammals to become evident. In addition, the type of tourism management and the low tourist numbers visiting this Park are unusual compared to better-known Brazilian National Parks, such as those of Iguaçu and Tijuca, which receive millions of visitors per year.

Images of mammals captured by camera traps in the Park.

Images from camera traps in the Peruaçu River Valley, demonstrating the range of mammals found in the park. Photos: Biotrópicos.

The article “A before−after assessment of the response of mammals to tourism in a Brazilian national park” is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Daniele Barcelos is a researcher at Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development for the Research Group on Ecology and Conservation of Felids in the Amazon. Daniele collaborated in this mammal monitoring project led by Guilherme Ferreira at Instituto Biotrópicos, using the data for her dissertation, as part of her MSc in Ecology at the University of Brasília. Her research interests include community ecology with an emphasis on mammal dynamics, and camera trapping for biodiversity monitoring and conservation.

Guilherme Ferreira is an ecologist with Instituto Biotrópicos and was previously a research fellow at University College London. He has been using camera traps to study wildlife for almost 20 years and is interested in how habitat protection and management can mitigate the negative impacts of anthropogenic pressure on biodiversity.