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Krithi Karanth: Can india simultaneously protect the environment and promote development?

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By Krithi Karanth

· 8 min read


Dr. Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist and director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies. Photo credit: Aneesh S

This interview with Dr. Krithi Karanth is part of the Asia program’s Women You Should Know in India Project, produced by Senior Fellow Manjari Chatterjee Miller and Research Associate Zoe Jordan, featuring influential women in India’s political, economic, technological, and social fields whose work matters for the U.S.-India bilateral relationship and India’s relationship with the world. 

Dr. Karanth who, in the course of her research, has had amazing encounters with animals in the wild including a tiger while on foot, thinks that doing field work and visiting wild spaces is essential to change the narrative on conservation. 

What do audiences in the United States commonly misunderstand about wildlife and ecology conservation in India? 

India is a third of the geographical size of the United States with three times the human population, which brings significant associated challenges. Yet it remains one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Over the last 200 years, despite rapid land use change, India is home to some of the most iconic and important populations of tigers, elephants, and rhinos in the world. And if you look at the history of disappearance of wildlife across the world, India has done an extraordinary job compared to the United States, Europe, and China. There is an inbuilt cultural tolerance for many of the losses people face for living with wildlife and this has allowed wildlife to persist amidst a billion people.

In the 1950s, just a few years after India became independent from Great Britain, it lost a lot of its species. Many people had the gloomy belief that wildlife would be wiped out across much of India. But concerted effort in the 1970s and 1980s brought wildlife back, and many species we thought were in trouble, such as tigers and rhinos, have rebounded. Today, India is at a conservation crossroads. In some places, we have indeed succeeded in bringing back and recovering wildlife, but it is also becoming increasingly challenging to do this work.  Environmental and wildlife issues are often at the bottom of the barrel, because rather than the government taking the initiative, conservation is left to think tanks, non-profits, and academic institutions. Consequently, we have also lost wildlife as their habitats and ability to move have come under massive developmental pressures.

Today, India is at a conservation crossroads. . . We have indeed succeeded in bringing back and recovering wildlife but it is also becoming increasingly challenging to do this work. 

What are the most consequential factors in the field of conservation science that you think will play a role in India’s relationship with the United States or the world over the next 3-5 years?  

If you look at the bilateral government agenda, conservation is not a priority. But there are exchanges of ideas, of scientific methods, conservation projects that are all driven by think tanks, non-governmental organizations, some smaller governmental organizations, and academics in both countries. This is not new. There is a historical relationship between the U.S. and Indian conservation movements. The U.S. environmental movement of the 1960s had a global impact, including in India, where it created a parallel environmental movement with amazing Indians who also stood up for environmental issues.

These deep connections continue today. I run the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS), which is a 37-year old nonprofit organization in India, and for thirty of those years we have been supported by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency, in researching different elements of conservation including on rhinos, tigers and elephants.

But rapid urbanization, economic growth, and integration with the global economy, as well as the changing aspirations of millions of young Indians (over half of whom are below 35 today) will drive changes that pose significant threats to India’s wildlife, particularly wild spaces. Much needed transport and energy infrastructure, for example, has meant the expansion and construction of massive highways, and solar, and wind energy infrastructure has fragmented wildlife habitats making animal movement challenging. So there is incredible need for conservation to become a priority issue in the bilateral relationship. There are many successes and failures in wildlife conservation in both countries that can be shared. Cooperation on wildlife conservation has held steady at lower levels regardless of which party has been in power in either India or the United States. That’s brilliant, right? It’s totally apolitical and that’s how wildlife issues need to be seen.

Cooperation on wildlife conservation has held steady at lower levels regardless of which party has been in power in either India or the United States.

Can you speak to the status of women in the work that you do?  

Wildlife ecology and conservation used to be a very male-dominated profession, until recently. In the last two decades, there has been an explosion of women pursuing field work in conservation and storytelling focused on wildlife and wild spaces in India. I feel privileged to have mentored and worked with over 300 young scientists and involved 700 citizen science volunteers, about half of whom were women, in my research and conservation projects since 2010. 

But women scientists and conservationists globally, and even more so in India, have to overcome many challenges to be taken seriously and be respected for the work being done. There are significant barriers in terms of financial support and professional recognition. There is also not enough encouragement, whether from the government or private sector, for women to enter the field. We work in the field in remote places, and it’s not for the pay—it’s for the love of doing something for nature.  Social acceptance for that kind of work takes much longer in a patriarchal country like India.

What inspired you to pursue your career path? How does your personal background inform your work? 

I grew up an only child in India with a lot of freedom, often left alone to my devices. My parents, both scientists, inspired me with their passion and commitment to their fields of pathology and wildlife, while my grandfather inspired me with his boundless enthusiasm for people and the environment. The first 17 years of my life were spent watching animals for hours and visiting many wildlife places with my dad.

Even so, I never planned to become a wildlife scientist, conservationist, educator, and storyteller. Wildlife conservation is an extremely demanding and volatile profession, requiring adaptability and resilience. But an incredible education and opportunities to interact with amazing peers and inspiring mentors, and my years studying in the United States, gave me the time and space to enter the field. When I started my career, I would spend months and months away from home in remote forests or tiny villages without amenities. Day in and day out, I’d be out there doing field work, with very long 12-14 hour days collecting data or running conservation programs. But today the greatest joy in my life is getting out there and working with animals or with people who work with animals, so I can help change the narrative on conservation.

When you look at the state of wildlife conservation, environmental protection, and nonprofit work, what concerns you most or brings you hope? What are the most pressing priorities for you and your colleagues? 

I am a pragmatic optimist. There are more people today who care for the environment and wildlife than ever before, and so public support can be a powerful enabler of change.

But I am also concerned that our notion of wildlife is about watching amazing documentaries on National Geographic without understanding the real dangers and real costs to people who live with wildlife. I worry that, in my own lifetime, we may lose India’s magnificent wildlife on a scale that has never been seen before.

There is a huge disconnect between rural and urban Indians. People living next to wildlife forests and parks are expected to simply bear the cost of coexisting with wildlife. It is the local people who pay a price for the development that encroaches on wild areas, resulting in wildlife straying into their lives, ruining crops and killing livestock. Most people in urban areas are simply unaware of the devastating impact this can have on an entire family.

Scientific solutions for this are being overlooked in a rapid growth mindset. Millions of people in India will transition from poor to middle class, and upwards. As aspirations go up, demands go up with serious impact on wildlife habitat and movement.

We urgently need to be able to design and implement solutions for environmental degradation and wildlife loss. This is what my colleagues and I at CWS are focused on. Our conservation programs alongside communities that live around sixty-nine wildlife reserves in the Western Ghats develop solutions and create opportunities that support their needs and promote survival of wildlife. I hope that in the justifiable need to improve human lives, to give people better social and economic opportunities, we will not forget the fact that there is a wild India.

This article is also published in Asia Unbound. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Dr. Krithi K Karanth, Chief Conservation Scientist at Bengaluru-based Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS), has been chosen as the first Indian and Asian woman for the 2021 ‘WILD Innovator Award’. This award given by the ‘‘WILD ELEMENTS Foundation” brings together a coalition of innovators, advocates and partners to “disrupt the status quo and identify solutions to global sustainability and conservation."

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