Course:CONS200/2023/Does tourism harm urban wildlife? A case study of bat watching from Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas.

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Wildlife watching example known as Birdwatching [1]

What is Wildlife Watching?

Wildlife as a concept has many different definitions. One of them was given by Richard Tapper, who describes wildlife as the general term that covers flora and fauna, but most of the time the general population uses it to refer only to the animals in the wild, including mammals, insects and marine life[2]. Thus, although wildlife watching can be described as any activity involved in the watching of wildlife, the term usually involves only the watching of animals. This term is also used to distinguish wildlife watching from other forms of wildlife-based activities like hunting and fishing.The activities involved in wildlife watching are essentially observational, but in some cases it can implicate interactions with the animals being watched, such as touching or feeding them[2].

As for the term “wildlife watching tourism”, defined as the organized tourism required to watch wildlife in a natural setting, this is used to exclude tourism around animals kept in confined conditions[2]. Wildlife watching overlaps with many fields such as ecotourism, which is a form of tourism based on the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. Because of this relationship, the size of the groups involved in wildlife watching can vary from small groups when it is more closely related to ecotourism, to appropriately operated mass tourism activities. Ultimately, wildlife watching has links with a wide range of different types of tourism, and tourists participate in this activity for many different reasons. Furthermore, tourism is highly dynamic, and conservation organizations have stated that in recent years there has been a blurring between various types of tourism[2]. Hence, it is important that wildlife watching tourism is sustainable, and protects the wildlife, habitats and communities on which it depends.

Wildlife watching tourism involves many different groups of stakeholders. These include Indigenous and local communities; wildlife managers in public and private sectors; national and local government; conservation NGOs; the tourism sector including tour operators, local operators, excursion providers, and accommodation; and, of course, tourists[2]. Each group of stakeholders has different interests and responsibilities, and successful tourism in the mid- to long-term depends on matching tourism activities to the role that each group of stakeholders is best able to play, and to the circumstances and benefit of Indigenous and local communities, as well as to the market demands of tourists[2].

Bat-watching at Congress Avenue Bridge - Austin, Texas

Boat tour example at Congress Avenue Bridge [3]

Considered one of the world’s most successful bat conservation initiatives, the Congress Avenue Bridge, located in Austin, Texas, is home to the largest urban bat colony in the United States. When the bridge was remodeling in 1980 and bats began to move into its crevices, concerned citizens, who thought the bats would pose a danger, began petitioning to have the bats removed, but a media campaign from conservationists was able to successfully change opinions[4].

Today, the bridge supports approximately 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), which appear in the evening to feed. [5] The bats inhabit the underside of the bridge from March through November, and migrate south during the winter months. Each summer evening, the bats devour more than 10,000 kilograms of insects including countless pests[6]. The colony’s appearances have become a tourist attraction for city residents, who make up a third of bat watching visitors, and tourists to the city. [6] This international tourist attraction brings 140,000 people a year with an estimate of between 200 to 1,500 people per evening[7]. The viewing occurs every evening from a bat viewing area, which in­cludes a series of information panels on bats, their ecology and behavior near a grassy hill beside the bridge. No charge is made to view the bats, but there are many companies that offer tours across or under the bridge in forms of cruises, kayak, and bicycle tours[8]. Once a year there is even a festival known as "Bat Fest" at the bridge, in which is advertised as "the biggest bat-viewing party of the year" hosted by Roadway Productions[9]. The economic benefits for the local area from bat-watching at Congress Avenue Bridge are significant, with an estimated $10 million to Austin every year[7].

Nature of the Issue

Risks of Wildlife Watching

General Risks to Wildlife

Wildlife watching tourism puts increasing pressure on the wildlife and their environments, as there are limits to how much visitation they can sustain [10]. Disturbances can change animals’ behaviours and physiology, damage habitats, and more [10]. Wildlife will respond to disturbances by avoiding the problem area, thus disrupting their feeding and resting as they try to find a new place better suited for their needs [10]. Furthermore, animals will respond to the presence of tourists by avoidance, attraction, or food conditioning. Feeding is often an exploited practice that is used around the world to ensure that the wildlife is more viewable as to attract people and keep tourism in the area [11]. In addition, wildlife being fed human food and/or eating the trash left behind leads to poor nourishment of the animals and can lead to aggressive behaviours if food conditioning takes place. [12] Changes in behaviour can make animals more susceptible to predation and expose them to other ecological risks [11]. For example, behavioural disturbances in whale populations can lead to decreased reproductive success in females, subsequently harming population growth and viability. [13] Such disturbances also have the ability to cause physiological changes to wildlife [10]. Studies have shown that some animals have seen increased levels of stress hormones in their blood. Other species may also be susceptible to human carried diseases as simple as the flu, against which they have no immunity [10]. Human carried diseases are not the only problem, but diseases found in domesticated pets can bring serious harm to wildlife. Canine parvovirus and heartworm from dogs can spread to can kill a number of wild canine and cat species [12]. Finally, the presence of tourists means the possibility of physical contact between them and animals. This is extremely dangerous as this can cause the animal to be rejected by its herd [12]. In 2015, a couple in Yellowstone National Park decided it was necessary to save a cold-looking baby bison, so they put the animal in their trunk and drove it to a ranger station for help [14] These actions would later kill the animal, as it was euthanized due to being rejected by its mother [14].

Wildlife tourism has the possibility of damaging and destroying wildlife habitats [10]. Creating tourist destinations can disturb previously undisturbed areas by building new infrastructure like tourism facilities, hotels, and roads [11]. This can bring along noise disturbances, pollution and degradation, the depletion of natural resources, vehicle strikes, and migration barriers[11]. Other things, such as recreational activities, like scuba diving and snorkeling, are likely to cause disturbances and destruction in these habitats [10]. Collectively these disturbances can lead to the crowding of animals, their relocation or displacement, and eventually the local extinction of species [15].Other problems of wildlife tourism include but are not limited to wildlife trafficking, promoting the idea that animals are an exploitable resource, putting emphasis on humans’ power over animals, economic stratification, and the rise in the cost of local living [11].

Specific Risks to Bats

White-nose Syndrome is a disease spread by fungus that disturbs bats in their hibernation process, causes skin damage and weight loss, and is accompanied by high mortality rates [16]. Although the spread of this disease is not yet well known, researchers can conclude that humans play a role [16]. Wildlife watchers who go into caves can spread the fungus around with their boots and other gea, increasing the risk of exposure to the bats in the caves [16]. This is especially true when individuals come from areas with higher known rates to areas with lesser known rates. North America has attempted to reduce human contamination through thorough spore decontamination measures and cave closures. Especially within urban bat roosts, it's difficult to accurately track the spread of WNS, and thus the true effectiveness of these barriers; coupled with the controversial nature of closures, the need for additional initiatives to be researched and constructed is clear[16].  

Proposed Solutions to Implications of Wildlife Watching

Urbanisation has not just evolved human existence, but the wild domestication and adaptability for all involved wildlife; whether this be indicated by birdhouses, backyard scavenging, or more specifically, the bat habitation of Congress Avenue Bridge. In regards to direct results of human impact, three primary goals can be highlighted to ensure sustainable tourism development: optimal use of environmental resources, support for the surrounding socio-cultural community, and ensuring effective economic operations[10]. In regards to Austin, Texas and the Congress Avenue bridge, relevant literature has identified that restricting human access, preserving bat microclimate, and raising awareness are integral to ensuring wildlife watching in the area is favourable.

Restricting Human Access—Reduce Anthropocentric Disturbance

With the majority of tourism sites being reliant on economic flows, and in turn the condition of environmental areas and wildlife within[10], working to reduce visitor traffic in addition to proper incentives to maintain messaging at "best-practice standards"[17] will assist in this process. Ensuring other wildlife rich areas do not follow the similar fate to the coral reefs, visitation must be reduced, modified, redirected, and/or prevented; the extent of which is dependent on the specifics of each area's environmental particulars[10]. For example, charging visitors may be a worthwhile option.

In regards to the difficulty of managing visitor conduct at tourism sites, improving guide training and interpretation will work to enhance the quality of conservation messaging, which in turn will enhance compliance[10]. Texas Parks and Wildlife provides several etiquette 'rules' for bat-watching visitors of Congress Avenue Bridge, including giving bats adequate space when emerging, reducing loud noises and bright lights, and not directly handling bats[5]. With sufficient authority and political support, a "combination of strong spatial and land use planning, and effective management of wildlife watching tourism sites"[10] will ensure sustainable practice of wildlife watching tourism.

Preserving Bat Microclimate—Intrinsic Prioritisation

Crowd gathered in downtown Austin on the Congress Avenue Bridge, as well as on boats on the river, to witness the nightly emergence of bats from under the bridge, 27 March 2016.

An unfortunate result of cohabitation is the impact of climate change on wildlife, where easing the burden of "the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves" calls for the adaptation of bat roost structures[18]. This adaptation alongside general bridge maintenance must be done with the bat's existence in mind; during vulnerable times of year, namely maternity and hibernation season, maintenance work should be moved to less disturbing times[18]. Ensuring that roost access points are still available during new structure development [18] can further work to support bat populations. In addition, reasonable distance between bat-watching areas and roosts is needed to mitigate the effects of non-threatening human exposure on reducing predator response and increasing vulnerability[17]. It's important to remember that animals within the urban world choose their habitation, making it difficult to intervene through designating specific bat roost areas.

Raising Awareness

Fostering direct emotional connections to wildlife is an invaluable conservation mechanism, with visitor-focused (e.g. thrill seeking) wildlife tourism being a clear missed opportunity for conservation efforts; with proper messaging being key to "promoting environmental education, direct conservation funding (e.g. donations) and positive attitudes towards wildlife"[17]. Combating limited incentives to expend resources involves key stakeholders and political figures' cooperation. Certain measures involving personal capacity for change can be implemented to increase positive perception and overall experience. Rather than in isolation, conservation messaging coupled with the impacts of personal consumption on their home environments elicits more engagement. In addition, long-term relations can be fostered before, during and after one's visit; for example, wildlife tourism packages and post-visit resources that present opportunities to engage in conservation and follow-up on personal interests[17].

Natural history, rather than conservation-focused messaging, is often the focus of tours' environmental education, which can result in harmfully misleading opinions on the current threats to species[17]. This is also the focus of the bat-viewing area at Congress Avenue Bridge, with its information panels being focus on bat ecology and behaviour[10]. Ejotre et al. recommends "deliberate and sustained community sensitizations about bats through school programs," highlighting that older adults in comparison to younger populations have greater positive attitudes towards bat conservation[19]. Existing resources targeted towards promoting wildlife conservation and improving public perception are largely for foreign visitors[19], despite the local community potentially having key roles in species conservation (and its involvement in local economy) with invaluable understanding and familiarity[20]. Especially within post-COVID-19 circumstances, education is integral to combat the intensified distrust towards bats and foster effective human to bat engagement[20].

Advantages of Wildlife Watching and Related Tourism

Fostering Positive Attitudes

Rehabilitation campaign in Austin, Texas

As briefly mentioned above in 'Bat-watching at Congress Avenue Bridge- Austin, Texas', the Mexican free-tailed bats reside and colonize under the local Congress Avenue Bridge, call the place home. Alongside these bats' adoration for Austin, Texas, comes corresponding economic and biological benefits [21]. To continuously cope with rising hazards and care for the largest urban bat population in North America, local initiatives, one of the most dedicated and prominent group being the Austin Bat Refuge, have volunteered and taken measures rehabilitating the bat population in ways such as educating on bat-care and urban wildlife conflict resolution. More specified to Congress Avenue Bridge, the initiative have been proactive in rescuing injured and grounded bats and delivering crucial information for bat-viewing [22] cooperating with other local organizations such as Congress Avenue Urban Design Initiatives[23].

File:Psychedelic Pop Art Tree Becoming a Bat.png
A portray of Bats and associated elements.

De-stigmatizing bats from the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic worldwide

Like many other earth residents, bats encounter numerous challenges in surviving under both the direct impacts of human activities entailing climate change, fragmentation, loss of habitats, deforestation, and less direct pressure from misperception of their identity. Despite the fact that bats are the second most common mammal following rodents for having more than around 1,300 species [24]worldwide. Yet often through media representation and cultural depiction, the perception of bats is rather historically among one of the vilified faces portrayed in western horror. The stereotypes of bats are always tied to vampire lore and witchcraft, when factually only about one third of the bats depend on animal blood while the rest primarily consume insects and fruits.[25]

More has shed on bats for the past few years On last day of 2019, the WHO China Country Office reported worldwide about an unknown contagious pneumonia virus in the city of Wuhan, China, later labeled and named as the SARS-CoV-2 virus. [26]A pandemic was declared by the WHO three months following the news, though the source of the virus remains obscure. Reports of SARS-Cov-2-related virus all lead suspicion towards the Asian Rhinolophus bats[27] colonies in China as the zoonotic origin. Without reliable scientific basis or justification, around the same time period, access to internet and short reels platforms populated and agitated more negative interpretation of bats for associating it with the global pandemic that has killed millions[28].

Cultivating Shared Space

The misunderstood animal serves a pivotal role in any scale of an ecosystem and creates millions worth of economic and ecosystem worth year around. [29] Bats are key ecosystem guardians against pest that are crop-consumers and takes part in responsibilities including seed dispersal and pollination [30]. On an estimate, over three billion USD worth of values are retrieved from insectivorous bats hunting down the agricultural pests[29]. Our position is that through the documentation and comprehension of the knowledge possessed by various communities regarding bats, including their myths and stories, we can obtain an understanding of how each community's attitudes towards bats are influenced. This understanding can aid in the conservation of bats at local, regional, national, and global scales and ultimately forge a starting point and a framework in a bat-human harmonious space. By grasping social norms and the drivers of people's actions towards bats, we can craft and propagate messages that promote appropriate information shaped around bats and benefit them in the long run.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has resulted in elevated atrocities against bats, presenting significant challenges to bat conservation efforts [19]. Given the present circumstances, it is crucial to conduct additional research on human attitudes towards bats, since messages that associate bats with the direct transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans can lead to agitated beliefs about their role in disease outbreaks and impact people's willingness to coexist with bats. As a result, reframing this narrative is essential. [19] Under bats close proximity to humans especially under an urban setting, a multidisciplinary approach should be posed concerning the needs of both communities and their connection[31].


Wildlife watching at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas has brought in thousands of tourists each year since 1980. Home to the largest bat colony in the world, claims around it are made that tourism fueled by wildlife watching can be upheld to sustainable standards, while continuing to bolster the local economy and foster a supportive reputation for the area.[2]

These benefits can be extended to bat colonies as well, working to combat decades of declining numbers under an expansive threat of extinction[16]. Tourism in many places benefited conservation efforts by contributing funding and securing areas that could have potentially been lost to development[17].

Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis)[32]

Despite the numerous benefits, the ease with which tourists can demean the reciprocal nature of protected areas has largely been ignored, enhanced only by the complications of COVID-19[19].  Some experts provide existing solutions in both anthropocentric and biocentric values to mitigate said risks such as restricting human access and preserving the bats microclimate[18].

Bat-watching Implications—Does Tourism Harm Urban Wildlife?

Wildlife tourism if improperly managed can lead to significant disturbances to animals in their natural habitats[33]. For bats, superstitions and fear about them prevail  and  prolong  negative  attitudes  and human hostility toward most species especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism efforts for  some animals have led to improving  attitudes and species viability[4]. With this in mind, bat tourism has the potential of conserving bat populations while providing social and economic benefits to local people in host communities if managed properly.

Researchers have documented a variety of psychosocial and conservation benefits as a result of facilitated encounters, for example, people who often participated in birdwatching were found to be more likely to support conservation[4]. These evidence prove that wildlife encounters through wildlife tourism have the potential to change attitudes which may lead to long-term species conservation. Therefore, there is potential for bat tourism encounters to improve people’s attitudes toward bats as well as potentially increasing their support for bat conservation initiatives.

As with all wildlife recreation, bat watching must be well planned, and management should be based on legitimate scientific research to ensure bat populations remain sustainable. This requires the involvement of state and federal agencies, bat conservation groups and/or wildlife researchers when developing bat tourism projects. These experts are vital to obtain proper permits, assess the risk to the species, and aid in developing a management plan.

The Congress Avenue Bridge is often perceived as an example of the potential of using tourism to aid conservation. The site’s uniqueness as a wildlife-viewing site since it is located downtown in the centre of the city, provides urbanites access to a memorable wildlife-watching experience, something more typical to rural areas. Overall, many bat species are in need of conservation, and non-consumptive wildlife-oriented recreation can be used as a tool in conservation efforts.

The Future of Bat-watching—Recommendations

As the example in this paper illustrates, bat tourism initiatives can provide working conservation initiatives that benefit bats, local economies, and habitats. Therefore, bat tourism initiatives should be explored and implemented in other areas where bats, local economies and native people could benefit from such ventures.

However, further research is needed to better understand recreational visitors’ impacts on bats and whether those impacts are different in urban vs natural areas. In particular, since every bat species and local community is different, research should assess the feasibility of bat conservation initiatives through tourism on a case-by-case basis, and the effects of tourism should be closely monitored, especially with vulnerable species.

Social research is also needed to determine if bat watching venues lead to improved attitudes toward bats, bat conservation, and conservation in general. Such research into the attitudes of bat watchers should also determine what factors of the recreational experience contribute to the positive attitude and behaviour change and if those factors differ for tourists with varying motivations for visiting a site. Perhaps such venues could lead to the formation of more biocentric attitudes as visitors learn about the benefits of a species. Finally, the success of bat tourism initiatives would benefit from tourism marketing research designed to determine how tourists perceive bat watching as fitting into their vacations and their motivations for viewing bats.


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  21. Missing or empty |title= (help)
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  24. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26.,11%20million%20in%20central%20China. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  27. Missing or empty |title= (help)
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