Sustainable ecotourism requires careful management of human impacts on wildlife. Contrasting responses to the disturbance caused by ecotourism are observed across taxa and within species, because species and populations can differ in their tolerance to humans. However, the mechanisms by which tolerance develops remain unclear. Penguin colonies are popular tourist attractions. Although ecotourism increases public awareness and generates conservation income, it can also disturb penguins, raising concerns for threatened species such as the African Penguin Spheniscus demersus, whose populations are in rapid decline. We compared the tolerance of African Penguins to human disturbance across four colonies with contrasting histories of human exposure. Human approaches invoked the least response at colonies where human exposure was highest, suggesting increased human tolerance with increased exposure. The response to humans close to the nest also decreased more rapidly in highly exposed individuals within colonies. These results were consistent independent of breeding stage, and were repeated among colonies. Because the impacts of human disturbance, including temporary nest desertion, were greatest at the colony with least human exposure, human disturbance of breeding African Penguins potentially may be mitigated through increased levels of tolerance to humans, or displacement of shyer individuals, although this could not be assessed in the present study.
However, human exposure could significantly increase stress, impair reproduction and even reduce genetic diversity. Consequently, ecotourism must be managed carefully to minimize population level impacts, potentially by facilitating habituation in populations subject to non-threatening human disturbance, and maintaining some areas free of disturbance to allow shy individuals to breed.