Wildlife persists amidst Indians due to an “inherent” tolerance

Wildlife persists amidst Indians due to an “inherent” tolerance

It took a herculean effort by conservationists to prevent the tiger going the way of the Dodo. They have had to tackle the running battle between wildlife and the communities living on the edges of sanctuaries, with the two fighting for space and food. This clash for existence needs to be addressed if majestic animals are to have some place they can call their own. Dr Krithi K Karanth is # 18th in our list of Bangalore’s Global Icons for her research in ensuring that India’s jungles are not Kingless.

Dr. Krithi literally grew up in the wild, in the company of her illustrious father Ullhas Karanth, one of India’s most well-known tiger biologists. She spent long hours watching animals, and saw her father collar the tigress Sundari, twice at Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka. Her childhood is reminiscent of the boy brought up in the jungle by wolves, and the roar of the tiger in a dark forest.

India is home to 40 per cent of the world’s tigers, has all of the Asian elephants, the last remaining 500 lion tailed macaque are found only in the Western Ghats, and Dr Krithi’s research shows existing species which haven’t been seen in several decades and also discovering new species not seen anywhere in the world. However, with only 4 per cent of land dedicated to wild life there have been cases of man-animal conflict when animals have stepped out of the wild.

Dr Krithi has conducted extensive research on conservation issues in India since 2001 focusing on mammal extinctions, effects of anthropogenic pressures, voluntary resettlement of people, tourism trends, human-wildlife conflicts, resource and land use change around Indian parks. She has published scientific articles in several international journals and co-edited a special issue on conservation issues in India for Biological Conservation. She currently works with the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS), National Centre for Biological Sciences and Columbia University.

Under the leadership of Dr K Ullas Karanth, Dr Krithi’s father, CWS has conducted path-breaking research on the ecology and population dynamics of tigers, leopards, elephants and other Indian large mammals. CWS’s tiger project which originated in Nagarahole (and grew to several parks across India) is the world’s longest running big cat project in the world- with over 800 individual tigers identified, says the CWS website. CWS has been a leader in the fields of radio-telemetry, advanced field survey methods, animal population modelling and estimation. Its contributions to wildlife science includes methodology for safe capture and immobilisation of wild tigers and leopards, occupancy sampling, development of innovative models and protocols for matching stripe/spot patterns, and genetic identification of individual tigers and bio-geographic taxonomy of tigers – many of which have been adopted as standard practice by scientists across the world.

Supported by the Science for Nature and People Partnership, Dr’s Krithi Karanth, Ruth Defries and Ullas Karanth lead a project that will help decision-makers plan for infrastructure development while maintaining connectivity of the landscape, says the CWS website. The projects lens extends specifically to landscapes critical for conservation in India: central India and the Western Ghats. Both of these landscapes are facing severe development pressures from road, rail, dams, energy infrastructure, human settlements and mining projects. An advisory group comprised of high-level, key national and state-level decision makers from the relevant sectors, including highway, mining, and energy sectors, and conservation scientists are collaborating with a working group to carry out analyses of options for maintaining connectivity based on experiences in India and internationally, including costs and effectiveness of different strategies.

CSP speaks to Dr Krithi Karanth on her passion for conservation, her research and her love for science.

How has your childhood influenced the work that you do?

My father, Dr. Ullas Karanth – a wildlife biologist, and conservationist – took me to several national parks when I was about two years old. I used to spend hours watching animals! As I was growing up, I was inspired by observing the scientific process first hand- from the way he relentlessly sought knowledge, always strived to ask important scientific questions, gathered and analysed large scale data and creating one of the largest citizen science programs in India. Gradually, I started learning about the challenges in conservation. So, despite gaining exposure and insight about wildlife, I remained rather apprehensive about joining this field. It is extremely demanding, and can also be volatile. One’s work has the potential to impact thousands of lives (and not just humans). In my younger years, I dreamt of becoming an architect or a lawyer. But my enduring love for science brought me back to the wild.

How can India become a wildlife tourism destination like Africa? What needs to be done in terms of promotion and sustainable living for locals?

 Currently, much of India’s tourism is focused wholly on the 5% of wildlife areas fully controlled and managed by the government. We need to implement and widen this to include community reserves and privately owned reserves similar to what has been done in Africa. Only then will benefits from tourism truly reach people who live close to wildlife.

 Would you say that India's reverence for nature is expressed in her people's approach to conservation?

 Yes, in many ways. My research over the last 21 years has established that people are generally tolerant of losses such as crop damage, livestock predation which they incur frequently from wildlife and wildlife persists amidst people in many parts of India due to this “inherent” tolerance people have.

 Are man-nature conflicts on the increase or decline? Have we found methods to reduce instances?

Our research evaluated multiple mitigation options used by people across the country and found that most were not working. (see the scientific paper by Karanth and Kudalkar 2017 at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10871209.2017.1334106  

Preventing loss of crops, threats to livestock, damage to property, and human injury and death attributed to wildlife are conservation challenges. We surveyed over 5,000 households around 11 reserves in India to examine these issues and mitigation efforts. Crops were lost by 71% of households, livestock by 17%, and human injury and death were reported by 3% of households (losses attributed to 32 species). Households deployed 12 mitigation measures with night time watching, scare devices, and fencing which was used the most. The effectiveness of compensation payments in mitigating and resolving human-wildlife conflict is debated not only in India but globally.

We evaluated procedures, and payments made for wildlife related incidents reported in India between 2010 and 2015 (Karanth et al. 2018 paper: http://: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320717318852 ). Among India's 29 states, 22 (76%) compensated for cross loss 18 (62%) for property damage, 26 (90%) for livestock depredation, and 28 (97%) for human injury or death.   

In 2012–2013, a total of 78,656 conflict incidents were reported from 18 states with complete data. Of these incidents, 73.4% were crop loss and property damage, 20% livestock predation, 6.2% human injury, and 0.4% human death. In 2012–2013, payments totaled $5,332,762 (ranging from $0 for no reported incidents in Tripura to $1,956,115 for 36,091 incidents in Karnataka). The average expenditures per incident were $47 for crop and property damage, $74 for livestock, $103 for human injury and $3224 for human death. These numbers underestimate the total extent of conflict because of low reporting rates and unavailability of complete records from all states.

 We find that the average expenditures per incident underestimates the “true” cost of conflict. This is because of low reporting rates and unavailability of complete records from all states. There are a lack of policies in some states, while others have low payment amounts but high transaction costs. Despite an important Indian government mandate supporting compensation payments in our country, there are inconsistencies in eligibility, application, assessment, implementation, and payment procedures across states. Ensuring that compensation reaches all affected people requires standardising these processes in a transparent, efficient way, while also monitoring its perceived benefits to wildlife conservation.

Our Wild Seve programme was hence developed to build tolerance towards wildlife by providing quick and simple access to government mandated compensation schemes. A toll-free helpline, advertised throughout the landscape, allows farmers to contact the project. Trained field staff are dispatched to the site of the incident, and document the case. People then file a compensation claim with the state forest department on behalf of the farmer. This project addresses the issues of illiteracy, lack of awareness of compensation programs, inability to navigate the government process, and inherent transactional costs faced by the villagers, and provides free and transparent access to compensation for losses incurred due to human-wildlife conflict incidents.

 What is the role of non-governmental agencies in wildlife conservation?

 NGOs are critical to wildlife conservation and research both in India and globally- they are the cornerstone of innovation. At Centre for Wildlife Studies, we have a rich history of doing cutting edge science-conservation-education and policy with many wonderful partners including universities, NGOs and other institutions from India and abroad.

 We work on many research projects that look at human dimensions of conservation- assessing patterns of species distributions and extinctions, impacts of wildlife tourism, consequences of voluntary resettlement, land use change and understanding human-wildlife interactions.

 India’s wildlife persists in protected areas that cover 5% of land and in tracts of land outside these areas. Of particular interest are human-modified agricultural landscapes and agroforestry areas (coffee, rubber, areca etc.) which harbour a diversity of birds, mammals, amphibians and other ecologically sensitive species, especially in the tropics. In collaboration with Dr. Paul Robbins and Dr. Ashwini Chhatre I have implemented an extensive research project on coffee-rubber-areca farms across 30,000 sq. km in the Western Ghats. This interdisciplinary research project established that shade-grown coffee supports 204 bird species, including 79 forest-dependent species with not many differences between arabica and robusta! This landscape-level study found that sustainable farming practices (restricting pesticides and minimising artificial fertilisers while retaining tree cover) could offer substantial benefits to birds. Similar benefits were found for amphibians, butterflies, mammals and trees.