Tourism in protected areas can threaten wild populations: from individual response to population viability of the chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax.
Many protected areas are now faced with increasing pressure from visitors and tourism development. There is thus an urgent need for conservation biologists to evaluate the full impact of human disturbance not only on individual responses, but also on the viability of protected populations, so that relevant management measures can be proposed. We studied the impact of tourism on the rare and endangered chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax on a protected French island to assess the relationship between visitor pressure, bird individual behaviour and fitness, and population viability. During 8 years, we monitored foraging behaviour and estimated monthly juvenile survival using mark-recapture data. Population viability was examined under different tourism scenarios, using a stochastic individual-based model that incorporated the impact of visitor numbers on juvenile survival. In summer, the foraging probability of choughs was negatively correlated with the number of visitors. As a result, the time allocated to foraging during peak tourist season, adjusted to day length and prey availability, was 50% lower than expected. Juvenile survival rates were lowest in August, the peak tourist season, and varied significantly across years. August survival rate and therefore annual survival were negatively correlated with the number of visitors on the island in August and, except for a minor negative effect of rainfall, were not influenced by other environmental variables. Stochastic simulations predicted a low probability of extinction of the protected population if the number of visitors remains constant in the future. However, short-term viability would be dramatically reduced if the current rate of increase in visitor numbers is maintained. Synthesis and applications. We show that a relatively minor human-induced disturbance (e.g. scaring individuals away) has dramatic effects on population viability in a protected area, even when breeding individuals are not directly affected. This suggests that the full impact of tourism in protected areas may be overlooked, and has direct consequences for the assessment of sustainable levels of human disturbance and the design of quantitative management options compatible with tourist activities in protected areas. We specifically emphasize the need for more integrative approaches combining research at individual and population levels.