Dr Krithi K Karanth is an Indian conservationist and the Chief Conservation Scientist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru. She was recently awarded the Woman of Discovery 2019 and is the only second Indian woman conservationist to receive this award. Having being recognised for her efforts to re-wild India, Krithi says Indian conservationists have a lot more to do to achieve their targets. In an interview to The Heyvan Times, Kriti also suggests to increase protected areas from four percent to 10 percent, to save the wildlife and forest lands from the perils of urbanisation.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. What does the Woman of Discovery mean to you and conservationists world over? Do you see a lot of women in the field now as compared to earlier times when you started?
The Woman of Discovery is an award that one cannot personally apply for, you have to get nominated. So when I was awarded it, I was very pleasantly surprised. To this day, I have no idea who has nominated me. I’m deeply honoured to get this award. The Wings Discovery Award particularly emphasises specific fields such as Air and Space and Water, the fact that they’ve always had a Conservation award, means that our profession is being recognised (rightly so) as an important scientific field.
The award, I think, is representative of the fact that there’s a generation of Indian women in their 20s-40s who are breaking barriers and achieving amazingly, in a variety of different fields. I’m the second Indian woman to have won this award.
There is a generation of people (who are now in their 50s and 60s) and they’ve lived in a time where there were very few women in the field, and they have paved the way for inclusivity. More than half of my team at the Centre for Wildlife Studies are women, and I’m very optimistic that more women will follow. I believe women and men think differently about conservation issues and solutions, there is great value in having both, men and women, working together.
Q. What are the challenges faced by conservationists in India and how can those be overcome?
The most frustrating challenge is government monopoly over access to forests, it inhibits us from conducting research. The government is the steward of most of our wildlife parks and public lands. It has become increasingly difficult for scientists from non-governmental institutions to get permits to access these sites. There is only one institution that has a monopoly on acquiring the required permits, and this is actually quite detrimental to science.
Science is a very collaborative process and it’s interdisciplinary. Indian environmental and social scientist needs to be given the platform and ability to ask a variety of questions and propose a range of solutions for us to integrate and progress towards a better society. The current system is certainly harming scientific temperament and research.
Q. You have done extensive research on changing land use around Indian parks and in couple of co-authored papers, you also note that increasing wildlife tourism have promoted private land sharks to buy land from locals around the parks to build tourist facilities and none of them are as such ecologically sustainable or sensitive to the local livelihoods. What concern do you see in this business now and how can conservationists turn the tables?
Tourism certainly is a double-edged sword. It gives every Indian the potential to see a wild tiger or a wild elephant, and the experience, the thrill of being outdoors. The middle class with its increasing population combined with the upward economic shift has resulted in increased wildlife tourism; unfortunately, this isn’t because of an interest in the wild as much as it is a way to express social status through social media.
In turn, this has put tremendous pressure on the resources available around the park, despite government impositions on vehicle numbers and carrying capacity. Therefore, land prices have skyrocketed around parks such as Ranthambore, Tadoba, Nagarahole, etc. We know a lot of vulnerable, poor people have sold their land due to the escalated land prices. This has created a dichotomy between locals who have lived on their ancestral land, and outsiders who have come in and established big resorts.
Our research from a decade ago quantifiably proves tourism doesn’t provide real local employment, i.e., they get employed for menial jobs on a seasonal basis. This is hardly sustainable. It fosters an environment of resentment when local children cannot afford to enter the parks; while urban people who have the capacity to spend Rs 15,000– Rs one lakh per night to use these facilities, and pay additional fees for the safaris and expensive cameras.
Most of India cannot afford this kind of tourism. We need to find different ways to correct this. The animals of India belong to every Indian, the right to see them should also belong to every Indian.
Q. Despite strict vigilante, many wildlife tourists and photographers are taken to core areas of parks like Kanha, Bandipur or Tadoba for better tiger sightings, with connivance of officials and forest guides. What is NTCA doing to prevent animals from being disturbed and untowards human-animal conflict inside parks?
I am not particularly aware of this issue, I am sure it happens. What I am aware of is, the premium that is paid to sit in a particular seat in a safari jeep.
There are incentives being given to guides in terms of money or expensive equipment, which results in a skewed parallel economy. The unhealthy source is the obsession with taking endless pictures and posting it on social media. It does little to nothing to actually help the park, those species and the people around. It is the responsibility of these urban photographers to be less exploitative.
Q. You also believe in increasing the percentage of protected areas that are there in India from 4 % to 10%. What are your suggestions to achieve this ambitious goal?
When India is compared to countries from other parts of the world, small countries such as Bhutan or Costa Rica have 30% of land set aside for wildlife; even large countries such as the USA and China have 15% set aside. So why are we so unambitious about allocating space for nature?
We have large areas of forest cover, but if we evaluate land that actually has animals of different trophic levels dwelling in the forest, we’re left with a fraction of the 4 percent. Personally, If we move from 4% to 6% it will be a monumental achievement. I think there are enough examples from around the world, where tourism is used as an opportunity to facilitate private or community-owned conservancies that increase spaces for the wild.
In India, the Western Ghats and Northeast India have large tracts of land that have been converted into tea, coffee, and rubber plantations, these could very easily be co-opted and made into wildlife-friendly landscapes. We also have the option of agroforestry, which allows people to live and cultivate and it still allows for passage of wildlife. There are creative, private solutions that we need to look at outside the scope of government mandates for wildlife.
About Dr Krithi Karanth
Dr Krithi is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Duke University (USA) and also an Explorer, National Geographic Society. With the motto to re-wild India, Krithi works tirelessly on human-animal conflicts and land use change, since 2001. She has done immense research on mammal extinctions, effects of anthropogenic pressures, voluntary resettlement of people, tourist trends and resource and land use change around Indian national parks. Her doctoral thesis at Duke University was on voluntary resettlement of people.
Krithi holds a Bachelors in Environmental Science and Geography from the University of Florida, a Masters Degree in Environmental Science from Yale University and she persued her PhD in Environmental Science and Policy from the Duke University. She was also a Post Doctoral Fellow with Columbia University. She has written many journals and papers.
Dr Krithi is daughter of Indian conservationist, biologist and tiger expert K Ullas Karanth and Pratibha Karanth.
She was awarded the Ramanjunam Fellowship from 2011 to 2016 by the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology, Cambridge Hameid Award, Society for Conservation Biology Best Student Award, Wildlife Conservation Award. She also spoke at the TEDxMAIS in 2013, TEDxGateway in 2014, TEDxMAIS, 2014 and TEDxBNMIT 2018.