Peace-keeping force: Krithi Karanth wins award for work on human-animal conflict

The 42-year-old conservationist has spent decades tracking encounters, helping people claim compensation, and educating residents living on the edges of forest reserves.
By Natasha Rego
PUBLISHED ON MAY 07, 2021 08:44 PM IST

Krithi Karanth grew up watching India’s wild animals up close. She saw her first tiger and leopard at the age of two. By seven, she was helping her father, K Ullas Karanth, one of India’s leading tiger conservationists, radio-track big cats. The two would spend hours sitting in a tower deep in the jungles of Karnataka’s Nagarhole national park, watching for animals.

Now 42, Karanth is director and chief conservation scientist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS), a Bengaluru based non-profit organisation founded by her father in 1984, with a focus on research, conservation and education.

In her 23 years as a conservation scientist, Karanth has focused primarily on keeping the peace between the wildlife in India’s shrinking reserves and populations whose lives and livelihoods are affected by their proximity to these reserves.

Leopards and wolves prey on livestock, wild pigs rampage through crops, elephants herds trample property. People are injured and sometimes killed; animals are injured and killed too.

Karanth has spent decades studying the patterns and causes of these collisions. “If 100,000 cases get reported to the government every year, about two or three times that go unreported,” she says. “And if there are repeated losses to crops or livestock or property with no help around the corner or, and this is rare, if there’s human injury or death, then there can be retaliation against wildlife.”

As a first step towards minimising this friction, in 2015, Karanth launched Wild Seve (Seve is Kannada for Service), a helpline and task force that helps people register and process claims for compensation. Typically, a CWS staff member visits the scene within 48 hours to document the damage and help file paperwork. They then track the claim until it is paid out.

Two weeks ago, Karanth received the WILD Innovator Award. Given out by the US-based Wild Elements Foundation, it comes with a prize of $100,000 (about 74 lakh). In its inaugural year, it was given to just 10 women around the world. Karanth was the only Asian. The citation states that Karanth was chosen for “researching human dimensions in wildlife for over 20 years”.

In a country where less than 5% of landmass is reserved for wildlife, this is a crucial frontier in the conservation battle. As our population continues to grow, more of this land is being lost to housing, industry and infrastructure. As animals and humans breach these boundaries, the toll on both sides can be devastating.

Wild Seve currently covers 600 villages and settlements around the Bandipur and Nagarhole national parks and has processed nearly 18,000 claims worth about 6 crore. Building on its success, Karanth took the campaign a step further. In 2018, CWS collaborated with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy to analyse which regions were least-served by existing government compensation policies. It turned out that Nagaland still didn’t compensate for human deaths in cases of man-animal conflict, and seven other states didn’t compensate for crop loss.

“We also reviewed what states such as Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra were doing right and better compared to other states,” says Karanth. “We came up with comprehensive recommendations for what Karnataka could do to improve its policy, which could fundamentally be applied to any state.”

Karanth’s work is a blend of scientific research and action based on evidence. “As an academic, you are judged by where you publish your papers,” she says. “That is something I am consciously trying to do away with. Although we still publish a lot of papers at CWS, that is not what I measure my satisfaction or success by.”

Instead, Karanth focuses on innovating, scaling up. “This is a very difficult profession. Most of the time, you don’t get to achieve what you set out to do. You fail a lot. So you have to have a thick skin and being optimistic is part of that,” she says.

But Karanth has also seen things change for the better. In every generation, there is greater environmental consciousness now, she says. “There are simply more people who care for wildlife and wild places, more people who want to do stuff, and there’s also more money to support conservation compared to 20 or 30 years ago. There are donors, there is funding and, most importantly, there are passionate people who appreciate that the planet wasn’t just created for people.”


* Krithi Karanth, 42, has a Master’s in environmental science from Yale, a PhD from Duke and was a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University in 2009-10.

* During her years with the Centre for Wildlife Studies, she has launched three flagship programmes:

- Wild Seve: A helpline launched in 2015 to help families claim compensation from the government for damage done by wildlife.

- Wild Shaale: A conservation education programme (shale in Kannada is school) started in 2018 to build interest and excitement in children about wild animals. The programme uses games, storytelling, videos and art to build empathy and teach safety protocols.

- Wild Surakshe: Started in 2020 to address health issues that arise around national parks and protected areas in Karnataka. This includes fighting outbreaks of the Nipah virus, cases of rabies and leptospirosis, and teaching first-aid.

* In 2019, Karanth won the Rolex Award for Enterprise, for her work to reduce human-wildlife conflict in India. In 2020 she received an Eisenhower Fellowship, one of 25 given that year to leaders from diverse professions, for their vital contributions to society.

* Two weeks ago, Karanth was the only Asian in the first batch of 10 women to receive the WILD Innovator Award, a $100,000 prize (about 74 lakh) given out by the US-based Wild Elements Foundation.

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