The animal-human conflict keeps Krithi Karanth, conservation scientist and ecological powerhouse, up at nights. She says that saving wildlife is one of the greatest global challenges, in India and across the world.
One can easily imagine Krithi Karanth, conservation scientist and ecological powerhouse as a child. Wide-eyed, she absorbed the animated conversations that volleyed overhead as her PhD parents and environmentalist grandfather opened new perspectives to the world. Like a sponge, this eco warrior imbibed it all, and set out to find her own niche in conservation and ecology. Her father, Dr Ullas, a tiger biologist and conservationist, her mother Prathibha Karanth, a PhD, and grandfather, Dr Kota Shivaram Karanth, a noted writer and environmentalist, were the perfect breeding ground for a deep-thinking scientist to emerge.
The Covid-19 pandemic ignited in her a desire to address the needs of those threatened in forests and natural environments with Wild Surakshe. “With three decades’ experience dealing with human-wildlife conflict, when the pandemic broke out, I was able to rethink and expand the programme to include zoonotic diseases including not just Covid but many others found in the Western Ghats. We have designed a programme that will focus on increasing public awareness and safety for remote communities. It is going to reach communities living around 23 parks in Karnataka. I am excited as we are partnering with the government’s Directorate of Health and Family Welfare. Involving staff from the health and forest departments, and several local organisations who participate and share experiences, everyone learns from each other,” Krithi explains.
A Ramanujan Fellow, National Geographic Society’s 10,000th research grantee (2011) and Emerging Explorer (2012), she is also adjunct associate professor at Duke University (USA) and affiliate faculty at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (India). The recipient of the 2020 Eisenhower Fellowship, Krithi is honoured to be among the 25 women. “The women’s leadership programme runs once in five years, and 2020 is the third cohort. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, it is being held virtually for the first time. This is new for Eisenhower, and the fellows. So far, it’s been inspiring and insightful to meet the other women. Over the next four weeks is when the fellowship will unfold so I’m hoping it’ll help me build on the project that I proposed which involves scaling and digitising Wild Shaale and collaborating with others. When things are better, I can get to the US and do more,” says the chief conservation scientist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies.
For Krithi, her thriving foundation, learning and motivation found resonance in the many programmes she helms. This, she attributes to parents who never put restrictions on her, “I had a very happy carefree childhood. Being around parents who were both PhDs and pioneers was deeply inspirational.”
It was only apt that she would follow suit, and gather a huge body of knowledge herself. An undergraduate at the University of Florida, she pursued dual degrees – BS in environmental science and BA in geography. This flexibility helped young Krithi decide her career path. “By the time I got to my second year, I found incredible mentors in the School of Forestry and Geography departments. I got involved in research as an undergrad, and was clear by 19 that I wanted to research and be a scientist,” says the girl who went to Yale and Duke which further laid the foundation for what was to follow. “Yale was an amazing experience as for my masters, I had to do research in India. I designed a remarkably interesting research projection Bhadra studying the ecological impact people have on forests, and documenting an interesting voluntary resettlement programme that was being done. This fieldwork completely changed my life,” she adds.
A PhD followed and a post-doc at Colombia, she threw herself into research herself. “I was interested in documenting the extinction of the mammal species across India over the past 200 years. I had an amazing opportunity to read Indian natural history and hunting literature, read journals and gazetteers to look at where different people had seen and shot animals across India starting with the 1800s to the 1970s. I was able to document the phenomenal and unfortunate collapse of mammals across India, particularly massive range contractions and extinctions of species. This produced six scientific papers, and it was more an intellectual piece of work which captured the story of India’s large mammals and wildlife, over the past few 100 years,” she shares.
A Wild, Wild Best
After 12 years in the US, she came back to Bengaluru, where she started Wild Seve, at Bandipur and Nagarhole, Wild Shaale and Wild Surakshe. “Wild Seve is based on the idea that if a conflict incident occurs, you could reach out to us through a toll-free number linked to a data portal, and our team would arrive on the scene to help build the claim and documents,” says Krithi who is gratified by the faith and goodwill she has encountered.
Wild Shaale, a conservation-education programme targets children living in high-conflict villages, focuses on making children from conflict-prone villages get excited about nature. “In just 18 months, the programme has reached more than 400 rural schools and over 20,000 children living around multiple parks in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Together, Wild Seve and Wild Shaale will help strengthen our ability to cope with conflict,” says the professor who helms the conservation ecology course for master and mentors students as an advisor at CWS.
The accolades come pouring in
For Krithi, the two most defining accolades were being chosen as National Geographics 10,000 grantee in 2011 and the Rolex Laureate 2019. “Being honoured by Nat Geo and chosen as an explorer and grantee is something that changed my life,” she says equally chuffed about being a Rolex Laureate.
There is no dearth of the monikers she juggles, – World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, University of Florida’s Outstanding Young Alumnus, INK Fellow, and much more.
The Reel Conservationist
Recently, #flyingelphants directed by Prakash Matada and produced by Krithi won at the 2020 Jackson Wild Film in the Global Voices Category. The idea was to make a film around elephants yet go beyond conservation to something unique, creative and impactful. With friend and collaborator Prakash with whom she has worked on more than 10 projects, Flying Elephants is shortlisted at other festivals, and they hope for a public release.
Krithi was also invited to be a part of the Nat Geo documentary Save This Rhino, India. Working with director Michael Lawrence, and former cricketer and commentator Kevin Pietersen.
Disheartened at how women scientists in India are treated, she believes that there are many remarkable women capable of innovative work but with no support from the government or the private sector, particularly early balancing a career with family, has led to a huge dropout rate.
Her incredibly supportive husband Avinash has helped Krithi shine. “From the day I met him he has been my best friend, strongest ally, and incredibly supportive. When I want to try something new, he is the first person I share it with to get his opinion,” she added.
Working to lessen animal-human conflict
The animal-human conflict keeps Krithi up at nights. She says that saving wildlife is one of the greatest global challenges, in India and across the world. “When large mammals come into conflict with humans, damage crop, property and livelihoods, it increases tension, frustration and results in retaliation. You see elephants electrocuted, tigers and leopards poisoned. Conservation cannot just be left to people who live with wildlife and suffer the negative impact. We need far more public engagement and most importantly, urban citizens to help save wildlife,” she stresses.
Seamlessly working to bridge widening gaps across wilderness is tough, and Krithi has been inspired by many who share her passion and dedication be it tribals who restored her faith in mankind, or the explorers, scientists, and conservationists at the National Geographic Society.