The animals next door
This article reports on the impact of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Initiative, which supports outstanding individuals and organizations that are implementing novel solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The initiative includes the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a program that for over four decades has recognized changemakers from around the world, including Krithi Karanth and Olivier Nsengimana, who are featured in this story.
In a jungle in southwest India, a young girl named Krithi stands in a tall tower that nearly touches the dense tree canopy. Her father hands her his pair of hefty binoculars and points; there’s rustling on the forest floor below them. After struggling to adjust the focus, she watches in amazement as a large tiger strolls into view.
Thousands of miles away, on the outskirts of the lush marshlands of Rwanda, a young boy named Olivier is also scanning the land before him for movement. Crouching on the ground with his friends, he peers through tall grasses as the orange sunset lights up the horizon. They spot a set of majestic grey-crowned cranes engaging in an elaborate mating dance. Olivier ignores his mother’s calls to come home for supper. Taken in by the birds’ bluster and methodical bobbing, the boy can’t pull himself away.
Decades later, the children have grown and emerged as leading conservationists dedicated to saving threatened species in their home countries. Krithi Karanth is the executive director and chief conservation scientist of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, based in Bangalore. As the daughter of the renowned Indian wildlife conservationist K. Ullas Karanth, she spent 16 years accompanying her father on his field expeditions; the experiences coupled with years of professional training at leading universities in the United States laid the foundation for a career safeguarding animals. Olivier Nsengimana, meanwhile, is a veterinarian and founder of the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA). After graduating top of his class at the Higher Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, Nsengimana worked as a field veterinarian with Gorilla Doctors before deciding in 2014 to focus on saving the cranes that fascinated him as a child.
Their work is united by a commitment to finding solutions to a particularly knotty problem: the conflicts that arise when human societies and the natural world converge. Humans leave a consequential footprint, says ecologist and environmental filmmaker Charles Post. “The key threats facing wildlife around the world are the collective impact of society, which is coming to life through climate change, and habitat loss and fragmentation,” he noted. “As human settlements and industry reach further into wild landscapes, ecosystems are severely impacted.”
Karanth and Nsengimana are on the frontlines of the effort to reshape this relationship. Honored as Laureates of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise program part of the organization’s broader mission to make the planet perpetual the duo has instituted innovative projects in their home countries to ensure wildlife and humans can better coexist.
When humans and wildlife meet
The Collective's Charles Post outlines how human activity affects ecosystems.
As a child, Karanth would travel to remote forests to catch a glimpse of tigers and other wild creatures. Yet for some Indians, she notes, these sights occur just outside their homes. Because of the proximity between villages and wilderness, rural communities are frequently in contact and often conflict with animals. Wildlife may threaten farm animals and destroy property. In theory, the government is meant to pay compensation to victims, but sometimes people will simply seek revenge.
“India is a high conflict, high wildlife country,” said Karanth. “We have between 80,000 and 100,000 incidents that are reported to the government for which compensation is paid annually. But the real number of incidents in India is probably closer to anywhere between 200,000 and half a million.”
Karanth founded Project Wild Seve in 2015 to encourage non-violent interactions with wildlife. The group established a toll-free helpline that villagers can call after an incident. When notified, Wild Seve dispatches trained field staff that can help document what happened and process the necessary paperwork. Over five years, the group has filed roughly 16,000 claims and helped villagers receive some $600,000 in damages.
The project makes good on a vision for conservation that began when Karanth was just a kid tagging along with her father. “Growing up, I saw the tensions between people and wildlife,” she said. “My particular interests started focusing less on biology and more on the human side of it. What are the opportunities that we can create so people don't retaliate against animals and start to appreciate wildlife?”
In Rwanda, Nsengimana’s project is animated by similar tensions. Yet for the grey-crowned crane the focus of the young environmentalist’s work the consequences are nothing short of existential. Over the past 50 years, the bird’s population has been reduced by 80 percent due to habitat reduction and, notably, human poaching for the illegal pet trade.
Nsengimana witnessed this decimation firsthand. “I went back to my home village, and I could not find any wild cranes... Something had changed,” he said. “I told myself, I’ve got to do something about it. I’ve got to start something. I’ve got to save this species.”
Nsengimana’s RWCA works to identify captive cranes and, for those deemed healthy enough, advocates for their reintroduction into the wild. The group also aims to stem the problem at its source, disrupting the criminal capture and trade of wild birds. These tactics are working. “I'm happy to say that at the moment we have achieved our goal of not having any cranes in captivity in Rwanda,” said Nsengimana. The total population, he added, is bouncing back, as well.
According to Post, the Rolex Awards Laureates’ projects are consistent with an important shift in environmentalism one grounded in the fact that few natural spaces are wholly untouched by humans. In Karanth’s India, for example, roughly 6 percent of land area is protected. Conservationists have traditionally advocated for the establishment of reserves that isolate animals from humans. There’s one problem with that approach, Post says: “There are virtually no places like that left, ecosystems completely devoid of our collective fingerprints.”
Empowering a new generation of preservationists
Post explains the impact of the human population boom on conservation movements.
Both Karanth and Nsengimana have designed conservation strategies that accept the premise of co-habitation. To truly succeed, however, this approach requires buy-in from unlikely allies: the very communities who are putting stress on wildlife.
“Now we’re realizing that some of the best ways to accomplish conservation goals are to empower the local people,” Post said, referencing rural and subsistence communities, farmers, ranchers, even hunters who live on the boundaries of human settlements and animal habitats. “I think that that is going to be the backbone of conservation moving forward.”
This ethos of engagement informs how Karanth and Nsengimana approach their work. Lasting change requires more than a reactive response to a farming incident or a crane capture; it requires outreach and education on why wildlife preservation is important. In Rwanda, Nsengimana says, many locals have no idea the situation for cranes is so dire. Raising this basic awareness is one of his most important jobs. Karanth is doing something similar with young people in rural India. In 2018 she started Wild Shaale, an education program that does conservation outreach in schools. Since its launch, the program has reached tens of thousands of students.
“I kind of see Wild Seve as a short-term immediate response solution, whereas I see Wild Shaale is a long-term solution,” she said. “We’re cultivating an interest in wildlife and wild places, empathy for animals like tigers and elephants and an understanding of how we’re all interconnected.”
Inspiring more people to participate in environmentalism is core to both Rolex Awards Laureates’ missions. It also connects them to a global popular movement aimed at safeguarding the natural world. “There's a groundswell of people fighting day in and day out protect the wild corners, and ultimately our home planet,” said Post. “Feeling hopeless or helpless is not an option.”
The good news is that budding advocates don’t need specialized expertise or intimate experiences with animals, notes Nsengimana. All that is needed to effect change is a passion for preservation.
“Conservation, I would say, is like a call, and once you feel it please don’t let it die out,” he said. “Everyone has the power to make a difference in protecting our wildlife and our environment. It starts with the little things we can do for example, if you plant one tree, that tree counts. Everything added together makes a huge impact. To be able to have a perpetual planet, we need to work together now more than ever.”
Post articulates why community outreach is such a vital tactic for the Rolex Awards Laureates.
The Laureate Questionnaire
Nsengimana: “Having an idea and starting it and then Rolex seeing it through and believing in it, it was the birth of everything that we have now. That's where everything started. Rolex was there at the beginning, and I think everything we've been able to achieve is possible because, from the first moment, they trusted us and empowered us.”
Karanth: “After winning, I was very proud that this combination of these programs is something that Rolex and the committee recognized as something that's scalable to other parts of the world. Since then, there’s generally been a lot of goodwill, not just in India, but everywhere else in recognition that this is an important approach to help balance people-animal relationships.”
Q: What has it meant to be part of a network of Rolex Awards Laureates?
Nsengimana: “I would say the Rolex family is strong, and it enables you to build these kinds of relationships that help you to grow as a person, and as an organization. We’ve actually started a new project with [fellow Rolex Awards Laureate] Rodrigo Medellin, the bat man of Mexico, who has been like a mentor to me, to establish bat research and conservation in Rwanda. We’ve been working on a number of research projects and will publish our results soon.”
Karanth: “Rolex empowers its laureates for life. I formed very, very deep friendships with the other Rolex Awards Laureates. All of us keep in touch very regularly. I’m actually collaborating with one, Topher White, to see if we can use acoustic monitoring, particularly focused on elephants, as something of a warning system to identify animal movements and stop conflicts before they happen.”
These stories highlight Rolex's commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.
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percentage fall in the grey-crowned crane population in Rwanda over the past 50 years