Hand-feeding 'butandings' impacts their behavior -- study

The "hand feeding" of whale sharks, locally called "butanding," continues to impact the behavior of the endangered species in Oslob, Cebu, a recent study showed.

The study, led by researchers from the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE) and published in the journal Royal Society Open Science on December 16, 2020, showed the continuous impacts of provisioning or "hand feeding" on the behavior of whale sharks in Oslob.

The research also noted how the tourism industry failed to comply with regulations to protect this endangered species.

Analyzing 358 in-water surveys conducted between 2015 and 2017, the study revealed that whale sharks have modified their behavior in response to the hand feeding and the tourism activities in Oslob. 

It also showed high tourism pressure on whale sharks in Oslob, with significant levels of non-compliance to the code of conduct stated in Oslob Municipal Ordinance No. 091 of 2012.

Results revealed that 93 percent of tourists come closer than the minimum distance prescribed in the ordinance.

The researchers said the study is a continuation of long-term in-water research conducted by LAMAVE in 2012 which first showed that whale sharks changed their behavior in response to being hand-fed in the interaction area in Oslob, modifying their behavior in response to the novel food source. 

The initial study showed a poor level of compliance to the code of conduct with 97 percent of tourists non-compliant with the minimum distance from the shark.

Despite the national and international pressure and the uplisting of the whale shark in the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN Red List of Threatened Species from vulnerable to endangered in 2016, LAMAVE said the study goes to show that compliance to local guidelines has not improved over time and that the behavior change exhibited by resident whale sharks remains present. 

While some changes have been made since 2012 to enhance tourist comfort and experience, the study further highlighted that no significant action or improvement has been taken to minimize the impact of tourism on the whale shark and the change in their natural behavior.

"Reducing the impacts of tourism on endangered species, such as the whale shark, must be a priority for the local and national government," LAMAVE said. 

"The proper management of marine wildlife tourism, including whale shark interactions nationwide, should follow the Department of Tourism-Department of Agriculture-Department of Interior and Local Government-Department of Environment and Natural Resources Joint Memorandum Circular no.01 Series of 2020, which mandates minimum standards for the industry," it added.