The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)


Fecal glucocorticoid responses in wild orangutans following human visitation

MICHAEL P. MUEHLENBEIN1, MARC ANCRENAZ2, ROSMAN SAKONG3, LAURENTIUS AMBU4, SEAN PRALL1, GRACE FULLER5 and MARY ANN RAGHANTI5.

1Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana USA, 2Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, Hutan, Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia, 3Ecotourism, Red Ape Encounters, Sukau, Sabah, Malaysia, 4Sabah Wildlife Department, Ministry of Tourism Development, Environment, Science and Technology, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, 5Conservation, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Cleveland, Ohio, USA

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Nature-based tourism can generate important revenue to support conservation of biodiversity. However, rapid and unmonitored development can cause deleterious effects on animal well-being. Altered levels of glucocorticoids have been documented in several species/populations of wildlife exposed to tourism. To monitor any stress effects of tourism on wild orangutans, we developed an enzyme immunoassay capable of measuring fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (fGM) levels in Pongo pygmaeus. Using samples from captive animals, we determined that, if samples cannot be extracted immediately following defecation (which is unlikely under most field conditions), then they should be extracted within 3 hours following defecation. Following this protocol, fecal samples (N = 53) from 2 wild habituated orangutans in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, were collected and processed before, during and after tourist visitation events. We predicted that fGM concentrations would be elevated on the day after tourist visitation compared to samples taken before tourist visitation.

fGM levels were significantly elevated in samples collected the day after tourist visitation (indicative of elevated cortisol production on the previous day during tourist visitation). We conclude that animals used for this ecotourism project are not chronically stressed, and that animal temperament, the presence of coping/escape mechanisms, social confounders, and variation in amount of tourism may explain differences among previous experiments. While permanently altered stress responses can be detrimental, preliminary results in these wild habituated orangutans suggest that low levels of predictable disturbance can likely result in low physiological impact on these animals.

This study was funded by the Great Ape Conservation Fund of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, and Indiana University.

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