As of today, the National Geographic Society has issued 10,000 grants funding research and exploration since 1890—including ten National Geographic grant projects that, according to an internal panel, “have made the greatest difference in understanding the Earth.”
Barbara Moffet interviews Krithi Karanth, a 32-year-old conservation biologist based in Bangalore, India, the recipient of National Geographic’s 10,000th grant (since the first in 1890). Dr. Karanth, who grew up around the wild animals of India’s national parks, will use the funds to examine the conflicts that are occurring frequently between humans and India’s storied wildlife such as tigers and Asian elephants. As in many places around the world, wildlife are under increasing pressures in India, especially as they seek out food on farmland. Dr. Karanth answers questions about her pioneering research:
Question: I understand you learned wildlife conservation at your father’s knee, so to speak. Talk a little about your experiences working with your father (wildlife biologist and conservationist Ullas Karanth) and your early encounters with animals in the wild.
I have had a fun and unusual childhood. I got to spend a lot of time in Indian parks watching wildlife as I tagged along with my father to his various field sites. I got to see my first wild tiger and leopard by the age of 3. I got to watch him radio-collar and track wild tigers and leopards in Nagarahole in the 1990s. Watching him fight and overcome many conservation challenges and battles (such as closure of a large mine) over the past 30 years in India and his incredible knowledge on a wide range of conservation issues has been an extremely rewarding experience.
His work as a scientist and conservationist particularly linking science to conservation action is path-breaking and inspirational to me and generations of Indians. His insights into conservation policy and management issues continue to inspire me.
Q: Describe your early encounters with wild big cats.
A: I saw a leopard first…maybe that’s why I love them the most…the memory even 30 years later is etched so strongly. I was sitting in the front of a Jeep with my father, Ullas Karanth, and the late John Wakefield, and my mother Prathibha Karanth was sitting in the back. We were driving on a dirt road in Nagarahole National Park, maybe around 4 in the afternoon, and we saw this beautiful leopard bound across the road….the whole thing lasted maybe 30 seconds.
My 4-year-old daughter saw her first leopard two months ago, and she got to watch it for 10 minutes. Watching her excitement makes me realize how lucky we both are.
I saw my first tiger in Nagrahole with my father, Ullas Karanth, and grandfather Shivarama Karanth. We were driving in a car in the evening around 5:30. There is a old fort and its moat is overgrown with grass…My father spotted a beautiful tigress walking in the moat, and we got to watch her amble along for 5 minutes, and 10 minutes later we saw a leopard who sat on the road for 15 minutes. That was incredible day.
Q: How did you further develop your own knowledge about wildlife, and where were you educated?
My own interest in wildlife came from the wonderful childhood my parents provided me in India. They have always encouraged my interests and their passion for their respective careers continues to motivate me. Initially, I was hesitant to engage professionally in wildlife but the educational opportunities I got at the University of Florida (UF), Yale and Duke very quickly showed me that my heart and mind were interested in working in India as a conservation biologist.
I received bachelors degrees from UF, masters degree from Yale, doctoral degree from Duke and did postdoctoral work at Columbia in the U.S. For the past 10 years, all my research in these universities has focused on conservation research in India.
Q: India’s wildlife has been severely depleted over the past century. How does your research analyze this trend, and how have you been able to determine historic levels of wildlife populations?
For my doctoral work at Duke, I examined range contractions and extinctions of several species of large mammals in India over the past 100 years. This involved establishing a database of more than 30,000 historic locations from hunting, taxidermy and natural history of wildlife occurrence and establishing their present status in these places. This study established that many species occurred widely across India just a hundred years ago and today have disappeared in many parts of the country. The paper was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 2010.
Q: What kinds of conclusions have you drawn about the current health of India’s wildlife populations; have some animals gone extinct?
Our work shows that for many species such as tigers and wild dogs protected areas are critical. We also find that cultural tolerance for species has been important for persistence of some species in India. The cheetah is the only large mammal we have lost in India.
For many other species we find high probabilities of local and regional extinctions (swamp deer, lion, wild buffalo, gaur), and it serves as warning that we may completely lose many species in the near future.
Q: What are the main threats to India’s wildlife?
Depletion of prey, hunting and inadequate protection at local levels, large scale land use change and habitat fragmentation linked to infrastructural projects, roads, mines etc. at landscape levels.
Q: What is the outlook for big mammals such as tigers and Asian elephants?
I am optimistic for many species including the tiger and elephant; in some parts of India, particularly the south, there is very serious interest and the will to conserve these species, and their numbers have recovered compared with the 1960s-1970s. However, in other parts of India the same species are in trouble. Important to note that India still has the largest populations of both these species though.
Q: What will you use your National Geographic grant to do?
My National Geographic grant will be used to examine human-wildlife conflicts across several protected areas in the Western Ghats. Despite centuries of tolerance for wildlife, there is a gradual erosion of tolerance as conflicts between people and wildlife continue to gradually increase in some places.
Q: How can people in India and around the world help prevent extinction of India’s wildlife?
We need to increase people’s interest and awareness about wildlife and conservation issues and reduce the general disconnect from nature. Urban Indians and others are beginning to spend time and money visiting parks to view wildlife (especially tigers) and must be more conscious of their impacts, particularly via wildlife tourism. We need broader public support for existing protected areas, which now cover less than 3 percent of total land area and support a lot of wildlife. We also have to address people’s needs and requests, such as voluntary relocation from parks, so that they have opportunities for better lives as well.
Krithi Karanth is Ramanujan Fellow with the Government of India, Assistant Director for India’s Centre for Wildlife Studies, Adjunct Assistant Professor at Duke University (U.S.) and Adjunct Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University (U.S.).
More to Celebrate Our 10,000th Grant
Watch a video interview with Dr. Peter Raven, head of National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration. He talks to National Geographic News about the Society’s field work and the many grants given to emerging scientists to advance knowledge of the natural world.
See a photo gallery of ten of the most significant National Geographic grants, including projects from Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, Bob Ballard, and more.