Indian Conservationist And Scientist Krithi Karanth
The Rolex Awards 2019 Laureate, and daughter of a tiger biologist, hopes to reduce wildlife-human conflict in India. Will she succeed?
By Terence Lim
When I first met Krithi Karanth, it was during the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington this June. As part of the vote solicitation process of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise 2019, the Indian scientist and conservationist was presenting her case onstage, championing the need to reduce friction between wildlife and people living near Indian national parks.
The awards are a biennial initiative to support enterprising individuals helming exceptional projects to conserve our cultural heritage and protect the environment. For the first time in the history of the awards, the awards finalists were required to pitch for their projects at the National Geographic Explorers Festival because of Rolex's enhanced partnership with National Geographic Society. The awards and the extended alliance between both organisations, together with the watchmaker's support for marine biologist Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue project, come together to form the basis of the Rolex Perpetual Planet campaign.
After listening to all 10 finalists, I have to say that they were all impressive in coming up with innovative projects to solve Earth's problems and consequently, doing their bit to save the planet. Their fervent enthusiasm also shone through. But Krithi stood out for me. She was a pocket dynamo — a petite girl speaking so passionately and with much gusto about a cause that is obviously very close to her heart.
The daughter of a tiger biologist and conservationist, she grew up surrounded by animals. In fact, she said in the press release prepared by Rolex: “I saw tigers and leopards by the time I was two. When I was eight years old, I was tracking tigers with my father, learning to camera trap when I was a teenager. So, I spent the first 17 years of my childhood outdoors in the wild — and I assumed this is what everybody’s childhood was like.”
After she was unveiled as one of the five winning Laureates together with Brazilian fisheries biologist João Campos-Silva, French medical scientist Grégoire Courtine, Ugandan IT specialist Brian Gitta and Canadian entrepreneur and molecular biologist Miranda Wang, I had a brief chat with her, during which I could feel her fervour immediately.
In India, only five per cent of its terrain is reserved for nature but the country has 70 per cent of the world’s tigers and 50 per cent of the Asian elephant population, which is clearly heading for overcrowding. Krithi also noticed that there are hundreds of thousands of cases where communities and wildlife such as leopards, tigers and elephants clash every year, resulting in collateral damage on both sides. That is why the chief conservation scientist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies established a toll-free number in 2015 for villagers to call for assistance in filing for compensation when they suffer losses. (India has this policy where the government hands out compensation to farmers and villagers for wildlife damage every year.) Wild Seve, which has now morphed into a smartphone app, has successfully served and helped people living in 600 villages near Bandipur and Nagarahole parks in the state of Karnataka.
Besides Wild Seve, she also runs Wild Shaale, a conservation education programme in 300 schools in high-conflict areas, reaching 20,000 children. With Wild Seve and Wild Shaale, she plans to scale the model so that threats can be reduced and conservation awareness can be raised, while the local communities can be better educated on how to manage future potential human-wildlife conflicts.
“We are in two of India's premier parks and in the next year, we plan to go to six more parks. The two parks we're in have already 600 villages and half a million people, so even if we just manage these eight parks, we are getting to one to two million people, ” she tells me enthusiastically. “The fundamental idea is that the toll-free number can be established anywhere. Where this system will break down is if you don't go when they call. You have to respond, even if it's a trivial case. If you don't show up, they're not going to like you.”
This is clearly a woman, who is fortunate enough to have a headstart in wildlife conservation thanks to her father's influence. But Krithi is also evidently one who feels deeply for her country and the kind of human-wildlife conflicts she has seen and experienced with her own eyes. All she wants is to do is contribute her bit for this planet and improve lives, which is perfectly in line with the objectives of the Rolex Perpetual Planet campaign. And it's no wonder she made the cut to be one of the winning laureates.
There's no way that one Indian NGO can cover all of India or or all of the world, for that matter. But the model can be scaled anywhere, wherever there are lions, elephants, or tigers.
The best of it all? The 40-year-old is willing to share the model that she has developed with anyone, who wants to join her on the wildlife conservation journey. She said to me: “I don't want to hold on to all the technical know-how and knowledge. We are happy to give it to anybody in the world, who wants to use this model. There's no way that one Indian NGO can cover all of India or or all of the world, for that matter. But the model can be scaled anywhere, wherever there are lions, elephants, or tigers. We'd love to partner people in Kenya, China or anywhere else.”
She has clearly succeeded on several levels but can she make this work on a bigger scale? The jury is out there on that. But one thing is certain: Krithi Karanth cannot be faulted for her passion, determination and enthusiasm in making an impact on and difference for planet Earth.
This story was first published on Tatler Singapore.