Kalyan Varma/Courtesy of the Centre for Wildlife Studies
Krithi Karanth, seen here in the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in India, studies how animals and people live together.

Krithi Karanth's quest: help people and wildlife to coexist in India

Krithi Karanth has witnessed threats, poachers, and forest fires as she tries to learn how people and wildlife can live in harmony in a crowded India.

Krithi Karanth spends most of her time trudging through the dense forests and grasslands of India.

The young, petite Dr. Karanth has become a torchbearer for wildlife conservation in India, having worked on more than 25 projects while visiting remote villages and wildlife parks.

Karanth, an adjunct assistant professor at Duke University, associate conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (USA), and executive director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bangalore, India, says she owes her passion to her extraordinary childhood.

Thanks to her father, Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, one of the pioneering conservation biologists of India, Krithi grew up around wildlife.

“From the tender age of 1, I grew up watching wild animals at close range, watching my father collaring and tracking tigers and leopards,” she recalls.

But Karanth also saw firsthand the difficult side of conservation – nasty threats, poaching, and forest fires. For a long time, she thought she wanted to “be anything other than a conservation biologist.”

But during her master’s program, she found herself designing a field project in the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. A car accident on her second day of fieldwork resulted in a leg injury that required forced rest. But she was determined to complete the project.

“A month later I hobbled back resolutely in pouring rain and rugged terrain to collect data,” she recalls. “Though physically painful and mentally challenging, the three months I spent in this park reignited my childhood passion for wild nature, and I made a decision to become a conservation biologist.”

She began by building a database of historical observations from British naturalists and the wildlife shooting records of maharajahs. Talking to wildlife experts across India, she re-created where people had seen wild animals from 1850 to the early 1900s – a massive database of 30,000 locations and more than 100 species. Her study helped document huge declines in the distribution of wildlife across India over the past 150 years.

The study also highlighted the importance of protected parks, the last places where certain wildlife such as tigers and wild dogs remain. But she also found that other wildlife, such as elephants and leopards, still roam outside these parks.

She then went on to look at wildlife tourism and its effect on both the wildlife and local communities. During this time, she became interested in the problems resulting from human-wildlife conflict and interactions. She was surprised by the dearth of data on the subject.

That’s when she hit upon the idea of trying to map and model conflict zones across India. She started in a small way with a single project outside Kanha National Park, in central India.

“The purpose was to examine if there is conflict,” she says, and, if so, ask questions such as “What species are responsible? Are people trying to protect their crops, livestock, property? Do people apply and receive compensation for their losses?”

“This is pioneering work, and it has more significance today than 10 years ago, just because the sheer scale of conflict has increased exponentially,” says Dr. Ashwini Chhatre, associate professor of geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and senior editor of the journal Conservation Letters, who is currently in India on a sabbatical.

Since 2009, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, Karanth has surveyed 15,000 households in villages surrounding protected parks in the states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, analyzing patterns of conflict and determining the factors that affect human-wildlife conflict.

“A lot of scientists make it appear as if research is something elite,” she says. “But when you make it accessible to people and involve them” it becomes easier to see why your work matters, “rather than just doing science and publishing in fancy journals.”

“Most volunteers when they join have only heard about wildlife conflicts from the [news] media,” says Parvati Prasad, one of the volunteers. “But only when dealing with people living around protected areas [do] we understand [the] hardships that they face.”

Karanth’s research revealed that the villagers often suffered crop losses because of local wildlife. In some instances, they also faced livestock and property loss and, very rarely, human injury or death.

In states that have a compensation program, villagers must report these losses in order to receive payment from the state government. But Karanth found that a lot of people don’t report conflict.

In Karnataka, one of the few states that offers compensation, villagers told her that they were overwhelmed and frustrated with the slow process.

“There is a lot of paperwork involved; people get very frustrated as they need documents with pictures, and the effort they spend in going up and down to these offices filing the paperwork costs more than what they end up getting back,” Karanth says.

Taking note that cellphones are everywhere in India today – even urban laborers and small farmers often own one – Karanth and two colleagues, Nikhil Velpanur and Arvind Nadig, along with the staff of Wildlife Conservation Society-India, set up a toll-free number that the villagers could call to report a conflict. They hear a voice recording in their local language telling them to leave a message about the damage. The telephone number they call from is recorded, so people who are too shy to leave a message can still be contacted.

The Wildlife Conservation Society then calls them back, identifies the problem, goes to the site, helps them evaluate what has happened, and helps them file the paperwork.

Karanth is field-testing the program in 20 to 30 villages around the protected parks of Karnataka State, and the villagers have been calling in. She believes that if the program can work there successfully, it can be easily modified to work anywhere in India by using a different toll-free number and the local language.

“The idea is not to replace the government,” Karanth says. “We’re just trying to help people not get frustrated and retaliate [against the wildlife]. Helping them file the papers for the process will go a long way in building goodwill.”

“Dr. Karanth’s work reflects her enthusiasm and passion for not only the endangered fauna, but also for the rural and often poor people with whom that fauna interacts,” notes Dr. Norman Christensen, a research professor of biology and a colleague of Karanth at Duke University. “She is motivated by the belief that a sustainable future depends on the health of both the ecosystems and the people. This model of conservation is clearly important for India, but it is relevant to so many other parts of our planet.”

Conservation work has had some successes in India: Karanth says some parks have been so effective that there is a surplus of some wildlife species. The challenge remains to find creative solutions that maintain the integrity of protected parks as well as manage wildlife that are outside the parks, living on land shared by people.

Karanth’s hope is that one day humans and wildlife will not just coexist but flourish together in India, despite it being one of the most densely inhabited (by both wildlife and humans) places on the planet. “There is a cultural tolerance towards wildlife [in India] that sets India apart from the rest of the world, which [so far] has ensured the survival of wildlife here,” she says.

How to take action

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Pandas International helps ensure the preservation and propagation of the endangered giant panda. Take action: Volunteer to work with pandas in China.

Soi Dog Foundation improves the welfare of dogs and cats in Thailand, resulting in better lives for both animal and human communities. Take action: Fund emergency medical treatment for a stray cat or dog.

Greenheart Travel provides cultural immersion programs that change lives, advance careers, and create leaders. Take action: Volunteer for an education project in India.

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