This Bangalore conservationist is working to resolve the human-wildlife conflict in India

Meet Krithi K Karanth, winner of the 2019 Rolex Award for Enterprise.

Krithi Karanth

It’s easy to be excited about wildlife when your exposure to it is restricted to the few safaris you’ve taken. Ask the people who live on the edge of national parts and reserves and you’ll likely feel differently. “A lot of people are simply unaware of the devastating impacts that a single crop loss or livestock predation incident can have on a family. If a herd of elephants come by, they can wipe out an entire seasons’ crops, which means the family has no means to survive for the rest of the year. In the same way, livestock are often seen as banks for poor people. The loss of a cow or a goat can have drastic impacts on a families’ financial stability and ability to recover from shocks,” says Dr Krithi K Karanth a conservationist who’s been working in the area of human-wildlife conflict.

Through her extensive research, Dr Karanth has studied several issues related to the conflict – from mammal extinctions to voluntary resettlement of people as well as tourism trends and land use change around the parks. Dr Karanth, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and Geography from the University of Florida, a master’s degree in Environmental Science from Yale and a doctoral degree in Environmental Science and policy from Duke University, has also served as a postdoctoral fellow with Columbia University.

The latest of her many accolades is the Rolex Award which she won following a highly competitive process that lasted nine months. At the end Dr Karanth became only the third Indian woman among 150 Rolex Laureates.

In an email interview with Yahoo.com, Dr Krithi K Karanth explains what this award means and, really, what is it that folks in big cities ought to know about the wildlife-human conflict.

Please, could you tell us a little about the 2019 Rolex Award for Enterprise? What does it entail? How did you get nominated and how are you planning you use your position as a Rolex Laureate in your work?

I was invited by Rolex to apply for the award last August, and it’s a highly competitive process they received over 1000 applications from people across the world in different fields. The interview process was quite extensive, it took nine months. Initially 50 people were shortlisted, from there it was reduced to 21 following a presentation and independent jury interview in London. The 10 finalists were invited to Washington DC in June. In DC, the finalists presented their talks at the 2019 National Geographic Explorer’s festival along with a jury interview. It’s been just a few weeks since I was chosen as a Rolex Laureate and I am very proud to be the third Indian woman among the 150 laureates. What I do realise is that it’s an incredible and vibrant community that supports you as an individual for the long term. I hope to engage deeply with this community and build collaborations with them.

You've been working in the area of human-animal conflict for several years now. What would you say are the major challenges in addressing this issue? Are the challenges same or have they changed over the years?

One of the biggest problems we have is a disconnect between the urban and rural Indians. A lot of people in urban and semi-urban areas expect people who live adjacent to wild areas to simply bear the cost of coexisting with wildlife. A lot of people are simply unaware of the devastating impacts that a single crop loss or livestock predation incident can have on a family. If a herd of elephants come by, they can wipe out an entire seasons’ crops, which means the family has no means to survive for the rest of the year. In the same way, livestock are often seen as banks for poor people. The loss of a cow or a goat can have drastic impacts on a families’ financial stability and ability to recover from shocks. 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 local people who pay a huge price.

In India, our research across 17 sites has found that there is an inherently high tolerance for wildlife, retaliation only occurs when there’s a human injury or death or a lot of repeated losses. Our Wild Seve program has recorded several cases of repeated loss, some families have endured over 50 human-wildlife conflict incidents in a span of 4 years. It is therefore critical to build resilience in communities, that would otherwise be pushed further into poverty traps. Initiatives like Wild Seve invest in the present by helping communities build a tolerance.

We recently launched Wild Shaale – a conservation education program that focuses on children living in high conflict villages and focuses on getting children from conflict-prone villages to be excited about nature. In the last 11 months, the program has reached 70 schools and over 3,000 children living around Nagarahole, Bandipur, BR Hills and Cauvery wildlife reserves in Karnataka. Together, Wild Seve and Wild Shaale will help strengthen our ability to cope with conflict.

Krithi Karanth

Please, could you tell us how you went about becoming a conservation scientist and how can young students aspiring to follow in your footsteps do the same?

I never planned on becoming a wildlife scientist, conservationist and educator. I grew up in a household that highly valued science, both my parents are scientists. My father, Dr K Ullas Karanth is a tiger biologist and conservationist, and my mother, Dr Prathibha Karanth is a speech pathologist. They both established NGOs that serve society. Because of my father, I was been exposed to nature since I was a child, I saw my first tiger when I was two years old. Throughout my childhood, I accompanied my father on several trips and was naturally exposed to the scientific process of inquiry, research and analysis.

I distinctly remember not wanting to follow my fathers’ footsteps because I saw just how volatile this field could be. I wanted to become an architect or a lawyer. However, the love I had for biology was inherent and it brought me right back.

For my master’s, I found myself in Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary conducting field research for my thesis. In the first few days of being in the field, I met with an accident which took a while to recover from but I was determined to complete the research project that I had planned for months. The experience of going back, collecting my field data, interacting with people and finishing the project taught me that resilience, hard work and determination can overcome all odds. I discovered that I had inherited the passion to conduct research and use the research to help society, and I have only my parents to thank for that.

In my opinion, you do not need academic degrees 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 rigor and skillset that an undergraduate, a masters and a PhD provide.

I am quite grateful to the various universities I got to attend (University of Florida, Yale, Duke and Columbia), and for the time I spent in the US interacting with amazing peers and very inspiring faculty. That process was essential to my growth. 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.

What is the biggest misconception about your job?

People do not realise just how difficult it is to sustain yourself in this field, long term. Fundraising is a perpetual challenge, it doesn’t matter how many grants you raise, how many papers you publish, how many projects you implement and scale, you are continually trying to raise funds. It becomes essential to design effective and scalable programs such as Wild Seve and Wild Shaale. In a field like conservation, where there are so few of us, I find that there’s a lot of territoriality amongst institutions and strong philosophical divisions amongst individuals to the detriment of the larger cause. This isn’t as true in the pure sciences, and definitely makes conservation more interdisciplinary and more challenging. We would achieve a lot more if we worked in partnerships among different NGOs and academic institutions.

What are your plans for the immediate future?

The Rolex award process has been very intense. I’m hoping we can use the Rolex community and take the work Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) is doing and scale it up! I don’t mean just in India, but also globally. I also hope we can partner with other individuals who are working on conflict, or land use or working on tourism because all of these pose challenges to conservation. When I speak to colleagues from Africa or South America we see that are 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. I hope to play a role in that.