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An expert’s voice on wildlife conservation in India-Dr. Krithi K. Karanth

The force behind India’s pledge to conserve wildlife and forests are some conservationists who work day in and day out to understand and conserve India’s wildlife and nature. One of these is Dr Krithi K. Karanth, who has been involved in scientific research and conservation in Asia for more than 20 years.
Dr Krithi K. Karanth has conducted extensive research on conservation issues in India since 2001 focusing on mammal extinctions, effects of anthropogenic pressures, voluntary resettlement of people, tourism trends, human-wildlife conflicts, resource and land-use change around Indian parks. She has published innumerous scientific articles in several international journals and co-edited a special issue on conservation issues in India for Biological Conservation. Her work has been covered by The Hindu, Times of India, Indian Express, Monga Bay and more than fifty other international and national newspapers and science blogs.

She was awarded a Ramanujan fellowship from 2011-2016 by the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology. She has received the Cambridge Hamied award, Society for Conservation Biology Best Student Award, Wildlife Conservation Award, Duke Outstanding Paper and other honours. She currently works with the Centre for Wildlife Studies, National Centre for Biological Sciences and Columbia University. Dr Karanth is a TedX speaker, an emerging National Geographic Explorer, Rolex Laureate, INK Fellow and a WEF Young Global Leader. She has also been awarded the Women of Discovery award in 2019.

Youth for Our Planet was fortunate to have a few words with Dr Karanth who is an inspiration for young conservationists all over the world.

How did your love for wildlife start?
By the time I was 2 years old, my dad Dr K. Ullas Karanth, who is a wildlife biologist, and conservationist, started taking me to many wildlife parks where we would spend hours just watching animals. I grew up watching him being a staunch practitioner of the scientific process, from asking interesting questions to developing cutting research methods and techniques to analysing and publishing research in top journals. I initially thought I wanted to be an architect or a lawyer, but my love for animals and interdisciplinary research made me decide to become a conservation scientist.

When did you decide that you want to pursue research in wildlife conservation?
In the beginning, I was apprehensive about working in this field because along with the exciting opportunities in wildlife research, I also knew the immense challenges in conservation. The field is demanding and can be extremely volatile, too. Our work can impact the lives of thousands, and not only of humans. In 2002, I was in Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary, doing field research for my master’s thesis. On the second day, I met with a car accident and broke my kneecap. It took me many weeks to recover, and I had lost about half of my allotted field time. But I was determined to get back to work and complete my research. The whole experience convinced me about becoming a conservation scientist. It is the interdisciplinary nature of conservation combined with the passion to see my work having a positive tangible impact made me choose this field.

Can you tell a little bit about your work and any current projects that you’re working on?
There is a huge disconnect between urban and rural Indians. A lot of people in urban and semi-urban areas expect people who live adjacent to wild areas tend to simply bear the cost of coexisting with wildlife. They are simply unaware of the devastating impacts that a single crop loss or livestock predation incident can have on an entire family. And what I think most people don’t appreciate is that living next to large wildlife⁠—whether they are elephants, tigers, leopards in India, or lions and other species across the world—it is the local people who pay a huge price. In India, our research has found that there is an inherently high tolerance towards wildlife. Retaliation occurs only when there is a human injury or death or a lot of repeated losses. Our Wild Seve program has recorded many cases of repeated loss, some families have endured hundreds of human-wildlife-conflict incidents in a span of just four years! It is hence critical to build resilience in these communities, that would otherwise be pushed further into poverty traps. Initiatives like Wild Seve invest in the present by helping communities build a tolerance. And we recently launched Wild Shaale – a conservation-education programme that focuses on children living in high-conflict villages and focuses on getting children from conflict-prone villages to be excited about nature. In just 15 months, the programme has reached more than 200 rural schools and over 10,000 children living around multiple parks in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Together, Wild Seve and Wild Shaale will help strengthen our ability to cope with conflict.

According to you, how can we make sure that we humans live in harmony with wildlife and nature?
I believe that programs such as Wild Seve and Wild Shaale allow communities to cope with losses and inspire children to fall in love with India’s wildlife and wild places. I personally hope that we can partner with other individuals and institutions who are working on conflict or land use or tourism because all of these pose challenges to conservation. When I speak to colleagues from Africa or South America, we see that our problems are actually quite similar. Therefore, we really need to build partnerships that are cross-country, and the global South needs to start talking to each other more. And we need far greater public support for conservation, be it through volunteering, research or conservation and fundraising.

What is your view of the current climate scenario on Earth? How can we reduce our negative impact on the environment?
There is no doubt that climate change is happening and we need to do far more to build sustainable societies. Climate change will directly affect the species ability to adapt and survive and ecosystems resilience.

Lastly, what would be your message for budding wildlife and environment conservationists all over the world?
There are many ways to get involved and do your bit for saving wildlife and wild places – be it volunteering/fundraising/research/conservation or storytelling. The key is to do something so that we do not lose our incredible wildlife and wild places. In my opinion, to be a conservationist, you actually need a very different set of skills from a scientist. Being a people-person who has the ability to work with individuals, communities, as well as governmental and non-governmental agencies, is a must. As a conservationist, you interact with all sorts of people from different walks in life. You need to have an entrepreneurial and collaborative mindset if you want to implement on-ground conservation measures. If you want to be a scientist, on the other hand, you would have to follow a more traditional academic route. There is academic rigour and skills that an undergraduate, a master’s and a PhD can provide. So I’d definitely say that to be a scientist, you’d need to get a P.h.D. I would definitely encourage people to study in different places and universities. Do not get comfortable in the same place, because every new place you go to, you learn new things, and you learn different ways of doing things.