Krithi Karanth: conservation biologist works on bringing harmony between human settlements and biodiversity

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Image courtesy: www.inktalks.com

Image courtesy: www.inktalks.com

Back in in 2002, as part of her Master’s thesis, Krithi Karanth was on her first field project, to Bhadra, Karnataka.  Her father – K. Ullas Karanth, a well-known conservation zoologist and a leading tiger expert  – took her on her first wildlife expedition when she was just a year old, and the rest of her growing up years were spent visiting parks, watching animals, identifying different species. The experience triggered something, and all her childhood memories came tumbling back.

This was her A-ha moment. She decided that wildlife conservation would be her future.

Till then she had been unsure about what she’d wanted to do. Blindly follow in her dad’s footsteps would have been easy. She had to make sure that she did not want to get into conservation just because of her Dad’s legacy. Having made up her mind, Karanth has since blazed her own unique path, which may not be identical to dad’s, even though there are similarities.

Karanth’s journey so far:

After getting a PhD from Duke Univerity and a Master’s degree from Yale Karanth has embarked upon a career that involves studying how human settlements affect wildlife, effects of land use change on animals and how tourism can affect wildlife populations. While her work takes her across India, a large chunk of her work is centered around the Western Ghats, a region with which she shares a special relationship. Running along the western side of India for 1600 km, the Western Ghats are a biodiversity hotspot (one among the world’s eight “hottest biodiversity hotspots”), which supports a large amount of plant and animal species, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world.

The largest project that she’s working on is in the Western Ghats and is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Karanth and her team are studying coffee, rubber and betel nut (areca nut) plantations and the amphibian, bird, and mammal diversity that these plantations support.  “On these 2000 plantations we are gauging what kind of species can survive even when there are heavy human modifications,” says Karanth. The objective is to identify the link between how human decisions, such as which trees to plant, choice of fertilizers to use and different patterns of land use lead to diverse species thriving in these disparate environments. By understanding this crucial link, Karanth might be able to make plantation owners aware of what their seemingly innocuous decisions are having on the future of biodiversity in the region.Remember that National parks are small and can’t expand. In the Western Ghats, in Karnataka, these are the largest private held areas. We have to get land-owners to cooperate and support conservation,” points out Karanth.

Karanth wears multiple hats. Currently a Ramanujan Fellow (2011-2016), she’s Executive Director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies,  an Associate Conservation Scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcsindia.org) and adjunct assistant Professor at Duke University. For all her efforts she has received many awards and recognitions. She was the 10,000th recipient of the National Geographic Society’s (NatGeo) grant in 2011 and was chosen a year later as an Emerging Explorer. She’s using the $20,500 grant from NatGeo to study human-animal conflict in five national parks along the Western Ghats in Karnataka.

On choosing wildlife conservation as a career:

Karanth describes her Dad, Mom (Dr. Prathibha Karanth, a well-known speech language pathologist) and Granddad (the noted Kannada writer Shivaram Karanth) as incredibly passionate individuals. For them it was not about making money but about meaning. “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you love doing it because it will last for 45-50 years. Don’t become an engineer or a doctor, do something else. It doesn’t matter what you do, but if you really like it. Lot of people in 20s and 30s who volunteer with us say that they are pushed into Engineering, they are  bored after working for a little while and wished they had not done this. They are between 18-22 years, they are not enjoying what they are doing and nor have the room to think,” remarks Karanth.

She admits that’s there’s an high risk in choosing conservation as a career and will require years of patient studying, coupled with dogged determination and hard work. “Conservation is not like inventing an app and everything works out in a year. I have studied 10 years, have four degrees before I acquired meaningful skills,” adds Karanth.

She refers to the quality that most INK fellows (she was chosen an INK fellow in 2013) possess: that of not equating measures of success with attributes that are superficial like wealth, and fame. “I love being part of INK family, they are all crazy and all are passionate, they may not have anything in common but all possess a fundamental core that’s incredibly motivated to do something,” opines Karanth.

Motivation, drive, challenges and what irks her:

What drives fundamentally Karanth is that she loves being a scientist and being in the environmental realm. She’s annoyed with ad hoc policy making like putting up a mine or building roads, which are driven politically or due to economic concerns. In the past, she says it was difficult to obtain the services of a technologist or scientist, but now India has incredible people in science and technology who can help with making sound policy decisions. She bemoans the fact that most scientists do not get their just due, like professionals working in the technology space do.

During the 15 to 16 years that Karanth spent on wildlife expeditions with her dad besides being enamored by the beauty of animals, she became aware of the harshest realities of conservation. In order be successful in conservation, it is not just the research that’s important, but being able to deal with, and influence government and policy makers.

She’s of the opinion that environmental decisions need to be based on solid science rather than economic greed.  “Chinas rivers are catching fire due to environmental degradation, India does not have to wait for that extreme a situation. Lots of villagers are sensitive about rivers and forests, they know what’s going on. Rural India is much smarter. Middle class India is couched in bubble, we have disconnected with 800 million people,” asserts Karanth.

Commenting on the Madhav Gadgil panel report and recommendations made by the Kasturirangan committee on the ecology of the Western Ghats, Karanth says she agrees with neither, but feels it is a good start, even though the recommendations are based on inadequate science.

What keeps her going…

To restore her soul, every month Karanth goes to a solemn place in the field with her team. “It brings sanity, its not an obsession with a single animal. Just the knowledge that these places exist and knowing that you have seen just a fraction, and that there’s so much to see and discover, brings a sense of peace,” says Karanth. She has some projects in new sites, where she hopes to see parts of India that she hasn’t seen before.

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Nelson Vinod Moses

Nelson Vinod Moses

Journalist with a keen interest in all things social entrepreneurship.