Q&A Dr Krithi Karanth, 33, Conservation Scientist
Karanth’s research includes macro-level studies assessing patterns of mammal extinctions, impacts of wildlife tourism on reserves, sociological consequences of voluntary resettlement, and understanding ecological and social dimensions of human-wildlife conflict. In 2011, she was chosen by the National Geographic Society to be their 10,000th grantee. She tells Janani Ganesan that we are not making the best use of the resources and technology at our disposal to ensure wildlife conservation
TEHELKA: You have talked about cultural tolerance for animals as one of the reasons that India has done okay in conservation. Given the increasing loss of that tolerance due to disenchanted urban lifestyle, what could be the way to reinstate that?
KK: My doctoral work, which resulted in a series of publications on mammal persistence on an all-India scale (published in the Proceedings of Royal Society of London, Journal of Applied Ecology, Biological Conservation). What I found comparing historic distribution of species to present occurrence is that protected areas and cultural tolerance are both very important to survival of mammals. Even today, in states like Rajasthan, Gujarat and parts of MP, you see wildlife outside on people’s lands. This is less so in the south and non-existent in the Northeast where species are hunted. Several things can be done to address this. For people who live around our parks and come into direct contact with wildlife, educate them not to retaliate, and compensate them. When we interviewed people, many reported that the compensation process is too lengthy and costly to file claims. That often for species like pigs they do not bother reporting because the money they receive is less than what they spend on filing claims. For people who live inside our protected areas, conflict is perhaps the most severe. In many places these people have asked to be relocated with the introduction of the Rs 10 lakh package. Now the money is there, but I am aware of several places where this is not being done. People are suffering and this process should not be delayed. With urban Indians it is a very different challenge. Many of them are disconnected from nature or have a very superficial understanding about wildlife or conservation. Getting people to appreciate our natural heritage and see beyond tigers is important. Most of us are born with an inherent interest in nature but as we grow up, we lose that curiosity. Parents have to encourage this curiosity in children.
Are we at a stage beyond human and animal co-existence? Is the way forward to create exclusive protected habitats for animals and is this practical?
A country with a billion plus people and the world’s largest population of species like elephants and tigers exists for a reason. Our protected areas are very important and ensuring they are managed properly using the best technology is what is needed rather than the ad hoc management that’s happening today. We have the funding to do the work and the access to the best resources, but these are not being tapped. There are no excuses for this. For species like tigers and wild dogs, protected areas are their lifeline. But there are a lot of opportunities to try additional innovative approaches to protect wildlife outside parks and involve people in conservation through various ways. I have had the privilege of knowing and working with many of India’s best conservationists. These men and women have given 10-20-50 years of their life to this cause. I have also seen groups of young people such as WILDCAT-C from Chikmagalur in Karnataka emerge and become effective in their landscape. As long as we have people who care deeply about wildlife and engage constructively, we have the chance of ensuring India can conserve its wildlife alongside people, economics and development.
Can you tell us about some instances of human-animal conflict in the region of your research?
I work in central India and the Western Ghats. The conflicts we find are typical of most of India; more than 90-95 percent is related to crop damage, and only 4-5 percent is related to livestock predation. Fortunately, human injuries and deaths are very low. This is quite incredible given the high density of people living in close proximity to wildlife. I have just finished analysing my conflict data from central India and submitted it for publication. What we are seeing is that very few mitigation activities work and this is significant because so much effort and money goes into mitigation. We have also found that not all wildlife may be coming from parks, therefore it raises questions about who is responsible for compensation when wildlife intrusion happens from outside. Compensation to affected people definitely needs to be improved. I am still in the process of collecting and analysing data from the Ghats.
What is the scope in India for someone who’s studying to protect the wildlife and resolve human-animal conflict, in terms of funding, academic guidance and help from the state on procuring data? What challenge would your own experiences throw up?
Compared to 30 years ago, there are a lot of opportunities to gain academic credentials in wildlife ecology and conservation from different places both in India and abroad. In India, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (Bangalore), which is co-run by the Wildlife Conservation Society-India programme has a wonderful programme that admits 15 students every other year and fully funds their studies.
Funding is always a challenge and as a scientist, writing proposals and grants is something you do all the time. The Indian government has increasingly begun to support research efforts like ours. Fellowships like the Ramanujan Fellowship, which I was awarded, are very generous in the freedom and financial support they give a scientist to pursue research for a 5 year period.
When it comes to conflict work, I have had support from the Karnataka Forest Department. This is an issue they are increasingly grappling with so there is an interest to see what results we get. In general however, there is still very little appreciation for wildlife and conservation science. In drafting policies at the state or national level, I find that scientists’ work are largely ignored or taken seriously only when there is a crisis. Unlike other countries, the important role that science can play in guiding developing policies or improving management is ignored. What is even more dangerous is when people think anyone can do science and forget that most scientists have undergone years of training and bring expertise with them that cannot be gained in one day.
Are there specific projects/policies of the government that seem promising at this stage when it comes to conservation and resolving man-animal conflicts?
There are policies like the establishment of ecologically sensitive zones and critical wildlife habitats, which are crucial to maintaining connectivity and movement of wildlife. I am aware that these efforts have come under backlash due to political misinformation. People need to be educated about these policies before implementing them. As far as conflict is concerned, I am working on integration of several years of conflict data with the current information to identify hotspots, trends in compensation and strengths and weaknesses of the current system. This should shed light on improvements that can be made.
What do you make of India’s conservation policies?
In India, the issue appears to be more of enacting and enforcing existing policies. Many of our existing policies are well-intentioned, but are ineffective because of this lack of enforcement and this largely is the responsibility of the State.
Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka