Meet Conservation Scientist Dr. Krithi Karanth

2 years ago / by JACQUELINE EMIGH
Dr. Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist and executive director at Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS).
Dr. Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist and executive director at Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS)

“I’m pleased to have mentored over 200 young scientists and engaged with 7,500 citizen science volunteers in my research and conservation projects in the last 12 years. I find this process extremely rewarding even though it is a heavy investment of personal time with each individual,” says Dr. Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist and executive director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) in India.

“There is so much potential and so little guidance for people who want to engage fully in wildlife. I feel we can do much more,” she says in an interview with SEEMA.

Multiple Conservation Initiatives

Karanth oversees the CWS’s conservation, research, education and policy efforts. 

“I do a lot of public speaking, writing and outreach through several talks every year,” she says. “I also spend a lot of time fundraising and recruiting new staff joining us. We have grown from 16 to 60 people in the 36 months that I have managed CWS.”

The conservationist also teaches and mentors students both at Duke University, where she earned her PhD, as well as at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), where CWS has established a  highly regarded master’s program in wildlife.

“I love teaching and so we run study abroad programs for international students to visit and learn with us in India,” Karanth says. “I also have guided many PhD and master’s degree students in India, U.S., U.K., Chile, Australia, and other countries.”

Nothing is more exciting than being in the field, either on a conservation or research project.

Karanth remains involved in Wild Seve, a human resettlement project she founded in 2015 at CWS. It helps families impacted by wildlife causing injury, death, or loss of livestock or crops to navigate India’s government-run compensation program.

She explains the process: “If you had a conflict incident happen, you could reach out to us through a toll-free number linked to a data portal and our team will arrive on the scene to help build the claim and all the documents associated with it.” She says the program has been a great success with Wild Seve having helped file more than 18,000 claims for “vulnerable and often marginalized people who live with wildlife and bear the brunt of conflict.”

3 Inspirational Family Members

Karanth has been fascinated by wildlife her entire life. Growing up in India, she loved observing the activities of tigers, leopards, and other wild animals outdoors, especially while alongside her father, the renowned conservation scientist Dr. Ullas Karanth.

“I got to radio-track big cats, examine scats, walk line transects and set up camera traps with my father,” she says. “He took me to several parks, and I spent hours just watching animals for 17 years of my childhood. This is an extraordinary gift he gave me, one I came to appreciate only much later in life. I watched him go through the scientific process. The way he sought knowledge, framed research questions and collected and analyzed data systematically inculcated curiosity in me. I did want to become a scientist.”

Dr Krithi Karanth in the field, and working in the local community

Aside from her father, the founder of CWS, other major childhood influences were her mother, Dr. Prathibha Karanth, a noted speech therapist, and her grandfather, the famous polymath Shivarama Karanth. 

“Being around parents who were both PhD scientists and pioneers in their fields was deeply inspirational,” Karanth says. “I got a first-hand window into their lives and saw the dedication to their fields and their organizations.”

She described her grandfather as “the most extraordinary person I have met. He was 77 when I was born and I got to have him as my tata for 18 years. His multi-faceted personality, tireless energy and endless enthusiasm to meet people and do things were remarkable. When we would visit he would make time for us his grandkids – making up amazing stories every night, buying crafts and sports toys for us, taking us for gadbad ice cream, taking us to see Yaksha Ranga performances. I am very lucky to have had three deeply inspiring people in my family.”

A Change of Heart, A Move to Conservationism

Aside from the PhD degree from Duke University, Dr. Karanth holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and a master’s degree from Yale University. Also, after receiving her PhD, she did postdoctoral work at Columbia University’s Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology Department.

While she made an early decision to become a scientist, she was hesitant as a youngster about becoming a conservationist. But she received no pressure from her parents about her career choices.

“But by the time I was a teenager I was keenly aware of the struggles that my father and many of his contemporaries faced: constant backlash to research projects being implemented and opposition to conservation projects that questioned inefficiencies and failures in the system, particularly when it came to the government,” she said.

Karanth changed her mind years later, embracing conservation science while pursuing an interdisciplinary program in ecological and social science research toward her master’s degree. This brought her back from university studies in the U.S. to Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in India for four months of fieldwork.

Intriguing Fieldwork

Karanth has led multiple research projects evaluating the impacts of voluntary resettlement.

“Our work has evaluated government led voluntary resettlement initiatives in multiple protected areas, including, Bhadra, Tadoba, Kawal, Nagarahole, and Wayanad in India,” she says. “We tried to understand what influences people’s decisions to relocate and the processes implemented by different state governments and agencies. Post-resettlement monitoring of people and communities was identified as an important next step, along with exploration of how people can diversify their income opportunities and skills.”

Later, while doing her postdoctoral work at Columbia University, she began studying the origins and impact of wildlife tourism in India. 

“We have done multiple research projects across multiple parks across India, trying to assess how wildlife tourism has grown,” Karanth says. “India’s economic boom post 2000 has led to an explosion of wildlife tourism. Going on a wildlife holiday has become much cooler, with the obsession centering around a few animals. Sometimes it’s too much off a status symbol.”

Social media, which promotes the best picture of video, feeds the frenzy, she says.

“Unfortunately, most of our tourists do very little to engage in supporting the government or local NGOs working to save these extraordinary places,” Karanth concedes.

How You Can Help

Dr Karanth in the field, and working in the local community
Dr Krithi Karanth in the field, and working in the local community

You don’t need to be a conservation scientist to support the effort. You can give your time.

“Typically, most NGOs struggle because of limited resources. So supporting their projects through volunteering skills can help make a difference,” Karanth says. Skills particularly helpful for volunteers include filmmaking, photography, and content-writing.

Improving Conditions for People and Wildlife

Where does she see her own career heading?

“My career has transitioned from being a scientist, conservationist and educator to running an organization, which I never imagined,” she says. “Innovating, stabilizing CWS and growing the scale of what we do in India has become the main focus. It has been an exponential learning curve learning to manage media outreach, accounts, administration, and fundraising along with science and conservation.”

She agrees she does not do as much science as she used to.

“But I love all the new things I have to be engaged in,” she says. “I want CWS to become one of Asia’s and the world’s premier wildlife science and conservation organizations.”