Mention wildlife conservation and you imagine people trekking through jungles to tag animals, ward off poachers, and ensure that their natural habitats remain undisturbed. Much less, however, is said of the human aspect of conservation: what happens to the people who have to live beside these animals?
We aren’t just talking about the odd village or hut scattered on the rim of wildlife parks. As Dr Krithi Karanth, conservationist and director at India’s Centre for Wildlife Studies, estimates, nearly half a million people live within 5km of a national park in the country. And such proximity breeds conflict.
As animals are pushed out of their homes — due to modernisation, old age or competition — they stray closer to these villages and local communities on the edge of reserves and parks.
These interactions don’t always end well.
Elephants, which Karanth explains travel in herds of about six to 10, can come charging through a sugarcane field, destroying a crop that takes at least 12 months to grow and wiping out the entirety of a family’s livelihood. A family cow, relied upon for milk and sustenance, can be killed in the night by an ageing tiger, driven out from its hunting grounds by younger upstarts.
The villagers get frustrated, and when people get injured, or worse, killed — they take matters into their own hands.
“That’s when people snap,” says Karanth, 41. “In that frustration, they might poison the wildlife, or electrocute them.” It becomes instinctual for people to lash out at whatever animal they find: endangered or not.
“India is in a unique situation where you still have amazing wildlife left in the country,” she says. “It is home to 70 percent of the world’s tigers, and 50 percent of Asian elephants. You’re going to continue to have conflict, and it’s never going to go away, so it is really important to keep people tolerant of these animals.”
That’s why Karanth’s work focuses on a less-obvious aspect of wildlife conservation — it cares for the people who are inconvenienced by these animals.
In 2015, Karanth started Wild Seve, a programme that provides villagers with a hotline to contact whenever they have to deal with loss due to wildlife conflict. For example, when your goat gets killed by the leopard on your roof.
After confirming that a call is genuine — almost all are — a Wild Seve team visits the village to document the damage. Supporting documentation must be procured: in the case of an injured or dead animal, a veterinarian must certify that a wild animal caused the damage.
If crops were damaged, farmers must prove that they own the land that it’s on. Afterwards, the team compiles a claim that gets submitted to the government.
In its five years of operation, Wild Seve has helped file over 14,000 claims for 6,400 families, garnering them a total of $200,000 in compensation from the Indian government to date.
Karanth doesn’t just focus on the aftermath. She also started an education programme for kids in 2018 to help instil a love of wildlife. Wild Shaale is a four-part course that sees Karanth and her team visiting schools to teach kids about animals in their region, and how fragile these ecosystems can be. Through art, storytelling, and role-playing, Wild Shaale aims to have these children grow up predisposed to caring for the creatures they live so close to. The programme has reached more than 300 schools and 20,000 children in areas with high human-wildlife conflict.
And Karanth’s good work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, she was one of five Laureates for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. It supports individuals with projects that make the world a better place.
“The award is the biggest honour of my life. There are only two Indian women who won this, and I was so proud to be one of them,” says Karanth.
The Award brings with it funding of CHF200,000 to implement their project, a Rolex chronometer, worldwide publicity that presents the project to an international audience, and membership of the network of Rolex Laureates, many of whom they collaborate with to take their visionary projects even further.
Karanth’s desire to keep the peace between humans and wildlife was born out of her own innate love for wild animals, particularly the big cats India is so famed for. Her father is distinguished conservationist and tiger expert Dr Kota Ullas Karanth, the scientist who pioneered the use of camera traps to study large mammals in India. To Karanth, however, he’d always be the man who introduced her to the amazing world of nature when she was a toddler.
Karanth’s father brought her with him on expeditions into the jungle as soon as she was potty-trained. “When I was little, he would take me with him — I wasn’t allowed to do the work with collecting data until I was 18, so I would go with him in a jeep, or sit in a watchtower, and watch the animals,” she recalls.
“Not everyone gets to go into the jungle at two-years-old and see a tiger,” she says. “I want to conserve this feeling for as many generations as possible. How do we do that? We start with the people living on the edges of these parks and reserves.”
Her work has attracted its own share of criticism. Karanth says she still faces pushback simply because she is a woman — some people cannot fathom how a woman can be so qualified and be so outspoken.
“There is still resistance when you say, as a woman, you have expertise on something,” she adds. “So I think we have a long way to go, particularly in Asia.”
But so long as India continues to be a natural haven for a wealth of endangered species, Karanth refuses to give up the fight. She wants the ethos of conservation and tolerance to carry on far beyond her or her organisation. She knows it isn’t something that can be achieved by one person, or even with one lifetime.
“There are no quick fixes for conservation,” she lets on. “I wish people would think of it in the long term, instead of, ‘What can you get done immediately?’”
For now, Karanth is content with watching the labour of her work bear fruit, whether in the form of a bright-eyed child in a paper elephant mask, or in a tiger slinking quietly through the forests undisturbed.
This story is part of A Magazine’s feature on women of note for International Women’s Day.