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Unifying ecological and social sciences into a management framework for wildlife-based tourism: a case study of feeding stingrays as a marine tourism attraction in the Cayman Islands

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(Thesis) Ph.D.
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As marine wildlife tourism attractions increase in popularity, the integration of natural and social sciences is required to ascertain and then assimilate strategies to effectively address the undesirable ecological and social conditions of the wildlife tourism setting. The overarching objective of my doctoral research was to develop and employ a framework for mitigating human-wildlife conflict in the management of wildlife tourism. Using the feeding of stingrays at ‘Stingray City Sandbar’ (SCS), Cayman Islands, as a model for marine tourism attractions, I examined ecological and social indicators that could lead to detractions from the tourist experience, or negative impacts on stingray fitness. Using quantitative social indicators, I assessed tourist preferences for certain proposed visitor management options at SCS, and tourists’ expectations and satisfaction with SCS and their level of concern with the potential impacts of wildlife tourism. Results suggest tourists are heterogeneous in their degree of support for alternative management scenarios, and are furthermore not a homogeneous group as they possess differing expectations and divergent wildlife conservation values. The ecological indicators assessed - general, physiological and immunological health, were chosen to reflect the potential outcome of tourist activities such as feeding and handling stingrays. Findings reveal stingrays are receiving unbalanced lipid nutrition; they display grouping costs in the form of increased parasite loads, conspecific bite marks, and injuries; and they exhibit parameters indicative of chronic stress. To unify the results, I incorporated the ecological and social findings into an integrated system dynamics model designed to simulate potential management policies and model the resultant outcome on tourist numbers/year, stingray population trajectories, and stingray life expectancy. A lack of SCS management is predicted to yield the lowest tourist- and stingray population and stingray life-expectancy over a 25-year time span, and the most effective management strategy in comparison is a reduction in visitor density, restriction of stingray interactions to the tour operator only, and an imposition of a 5$ conservation access fee. The findings of this research have been formatted as a decision-support tool and are currently being used by Caymanian stakeholders in the development of a visitor management plan.
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