Undeclared baggage: do tourists act as vectors for seed dispersal in fynbos protected areas?
Encroachment by alien species is the second greatest threat to biodiversity worldwide. As South Africa's Cape Floristic Region has a botanical endemism of nearly 70%, conservation efforts are a high priority. Estimates suggest that alien species cost the country over R6.5 billion per year. Despite significant research on alien species dispersal, the role of tourists as seed dispersers requires further exploration. To investigate the potential role tourists play in introducing alien seeds into protected areas, long-bristle brushes were used to scrape seeds off the shoes of hikers, dog walkers and cyclists, as well as the wheels of mountain bikes and dogs themselves, upon entering the Silvermine Nature Reserve section of the Table Mountain National Park in the Western Cape province, South Africa. In addition, a vegetation survey was conducted. This comprised 18 transects at various distances from the recreational paths in the park, and used a prioritisation ranking system that identified the alien species of greatest concern. It was concluded that the greatest number of alien plant species could be found along dog paths, in comparison to the hiking trails and cycling trails. This corresponded to the findings that dog walkers had the highest incidence of seeds on their shoes, suggesting that tourists were possibly dispersing seeds from their gardens. Alien species significantly covered more of the vegetation transects closer to the trails than they did in transects further into the matrix. Because more alien species were present in areas susceptible to human disturbance, the data suggest that tourists can act as vectors for alien seed dispersal. These findings emphasise the need for active tourism management in line with the South African National Parks Biodiversity Monitoring Programme in order to prevent the introduction and spread of alien species into South Africa's protected areas. Conservation implications: Tourism is the main source of revenue for South African National Parks, and one of the organisation's principal goals is to create a tourism management policy conducive to conservation. This research explores the potential role that tourists may play in the introduction of non-native species into a protected area, thereby providing novel information that could assist managers in the sustainable management of protected areas.