Tigers, elephants, leopards. India is home to some of the most charismatic and globally important populations of wildlife in the world. It is also home to 1.4 billion people, many of which live along-side these exotic species.
“Many of these species have been wiped out of other countries,” says Krithi Karanth, IWCN coexistence council member and chief conservation scientist and director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, as well as Adjunct Faculty, Duke University. “Effective wildlife conservation efforts in India have led to rebounding populations of these same species in some pockets across India. But with this success also comes an increase in the frequency of human wildlife conflict. When wildlife is seen as a cost, in lost crops and livestock, and as a threat to safety, it is unsurprising that local families retaliate by killing “problem” animals.”
As such, she has made it her life’s mission to provide a set of dynamic resources to help communities coexist with their local wildlife. As a girl in India, Krithi’s father Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, a tiger biologist, took her to watch animals at a young age. She spotted her first leopard in the wild when she was two and by eight, had moved on to tracking tigers with her father. Her grandfather, Kota Shivaram Karanth was an iconic Kannada writer, environmentalist and social activist. That upbringing influenced how she approaches wildlife conservation today. Since 2015, she has established three innovative and scalable conservation programs that are helping communities in India to be more tolerant of and value the local wildlife.
Wild Seve (“seve” means “service” in Kannada) is a conflict mitigation and response program. “One of the challenges we discovered is that, although the government has money set aside to pay for compensation, people do not file claims or their damages get rejected,” says Krithi. “So there is a lot of frustration that builds when people have repeated losses. They tend to retaliate if no help comes.” Wild Seve provides a toll-free number that Krithi and her team have shared with over 600 villages. “Our staff members go out, document what has happened and help the family file a claim. We have filed more than 18,000 claims resulting in almost $800,000 in compensation from the government.”
Wild Shaale (“shaale” means “school” in Kannada) is a program that focuses on school-going children who live around wildlife reserves. The program builds foundational knowledge about local wildlife, ecosystems and conservation issues and fosters tolerance for wildlife and nurtures these children as future stewards of conservation. One child in the program said: “Whatever humans need, so do animals, and since they were here first, they have more rights to all their needs, more than us.” This program is effective in the long term, in educating and developing future stewards of our environment, but it is also paying off now. “Young people educate the adults,” says Krithi. Prior to establishing Wild Shaale, no calls were coming in from certain villages. But after the program started, “kids went back to their villages and told their parents to call for help,” said Krithi. “We often underestimate kids and the work they can do. They can do amazing things. You just have to give them enough inspiration.”
Krithi established a third program last year called Wild Surakshe (“surakshe” means “safety” or “protection” in Hindu). This program works with community leaders, front line forest and health department staff. “We run day-long workshops educating them about human wildlife conflict, why it happens, what are the do’s and don’ts and provide an understanding of zoonotic diseases and transmission,” says Krithi.
Just recently, Krithi says the Centre for Wildlife Studies has adopted a Primary Healthcare Centre to help rural and remote communities that have been severely impacted by COVID-19. “Our local field staff are equipped to provide support to the PHCs and we are in direct touch with more than 100 PHCs in 4 districts of Karnataka. Chamrajnagar, Mysuru, Udupi and Uttara Kanada. We need to fulfill the essentials required by these PHCs and prevent them to become the SOS zone. Our team is directly in touch with more than 150 PHCs. Our local field staff will support and enable the overworked primary health workers to curtail the rapid spread of Covid-19 and similar zoonotic diseases in these areas.”
These programs bring more tolerance to communities that are living and working in wildlife habitat. As India’s population grows, so does the fight for food, water and shelter, for wildlife and people. Krithi’s efforts will continue to be critical to India’s conservation success. Krithi says, “We need a generation of people to really take action to ensure that we don’t lose whatever we have.” With these programs, it’s clear the seeds have been planted for the next generation of stewards and communities that will continue to accept the challenges of coexisting with wildlife.