While most children were traipsing across suspended bridges at the neighbourhood playground, Krithi Karanth was on a different type of adventure. As an eight-year-old, her thrills came not from such playful antics, but from treks into the wilderness with her tiger biologist and conservationist father, as he tracked the wild cats.
“I spent the first 17 years of my life outdoors in the wild,” recalls Dr Krithi, who’s now the director and chief conservation scientist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) based in Bengaluru, India.
So it was only natural that the animal lover would go on to study in the United States for 13 years before returning to India because of her love for her country’s wild animals, and her desire to protect them.
As many cities across the world continue to grow, more people are coming into closer contact with wild animals, sometimes sparking conflicts and fear. Even in urban Singapore, some residents have had run-ins with otters, wild boars and monkeys, with several cases making headlines.
According to Dr Krithi, India has hundreds of thousands of human-wildlife clashes each year, with damage, injury and even death on both sides a common result. The keys to reducing human-wildlife confrontations, in her opinion, are three-pronged: conservation, education and compensation.
The 43-year-old has developed three programmes to minimise human-wildlife conflicts in her home country, and has also received further support from Swiss watchmaker Rolex to expand her work.
In 2019, she was one of five Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureates on the basis of her innovative programmes, which include Wild Seve, a toll-free helpline to assist people in filing official compensation claims for damage caused by wild animals.
Rolex created the Awards in 1976 to support individuals with exceptional projects that make the world a better place, expand knowledge, propose solutions to major challenges, and preserve our natural and cultural heritage for future generations.
Her programmes are in line with the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative launched by the company, which initially focused on individuals who contribute to a better world through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, on safeguarding the oceans through a partnership with Mission Blue, and on understanding climate change as part of its association with the National Geographic Society.
An expanding portfolio of partnerships under the Perpetual Planet initiative now includes projects such as the Under The Pole expeditions, pushing the boundaries of underwater exploration; the Xunaan-Ha Expedition, focusing on water quality in Yucatán, Mexico; and the Hearts In The Ice platform, which collects climate change information in the Arctic.
Rolex also supports organisations and initiatives fostering the next generations of explorers, scientists and conservationists through scholarships and grants.
Operation damage control
While the Indian government hands out over US$5 million (S$6.7 million) to farmers and villagers every year as compensation for wildlife-caused damage, the estimated 80,000 cases settled annually may be a fraction of the actual conflicts due to the government’s lack of resources to process claims quickly, she says.
That was one of the main motivators behind her establishing Wild Seve in 2015. The toll-free number at the CWS allows people to get help in filing their compensation claims. This way, people are less likely to exact revenge on the animals, while it lightens the government’s burden.
The helpline currently serves half a million people living in 600 villages near the Bandipur and Nagarahole parks in the state of Karnataka. But with support from the Rolex Awards, she is expanding Wild Seve to cover three more parks and 1,000 more villages.
Since 2018, she has also been running Wild Shaale, a conservation education programme that now reaches 500 schools in high-conflict areas to teach 30,000 children about wildlife. Through games, storytelling and other means, it encourages empathy for the animals and instructs the children on what to do during encounters with them.
She believes that Wild Seve and Wild Shaale can, together, become a model for conservation worldwide, adding, “It could work in Africa, South America and parts of Asia where people and wildlife live in close proximity.”
The future of wildlife conservation
To further foster human-wildlife harmony, Dr Krithi started a third programme, called Wild Surakshe, in 2020. It touches on wild animal-related health issues that arise near Karnataka’s national parks and protected areas, such as outbreaks of the Nipah virus, which spreads from bats to humans.
She tells science journal Frontiers: “With Wild Surakshe, we started by educating remote communities about conflicts as well as zoonoses (infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans). We’ve run 150 workshops with over 4,000 people who live in remote parts of India that government agencies do not reach.”
Dr Krithi promotes conservation in other ways too. She has mentored over 150 young scientists and involved about 700 citizen scientists in her research and conservation projects.
In recognition of her achievements, she has also been named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, among other distinctions, and won an Eisenhower Fellowship and other honours.
Most recently, she received the 2021 Wild Innovator Award from the Wild Elements Foundation, a non-profit that aims to address climate change by focusing on the interconnected relationship of animals, humans, and plants.
Looking back on her decades of wildlife conservation research and work, she says: “I’m always an optimist and never give up.
“I think India is doing better now than it did 50 years ago. A lot of places are in trouble… a lot of species are in trouble, but we have technology and more public support for wildlife conservation. We have resources that the world didn’t have 10 years or 20 years ago. We just need to be smart about deploying them in time.”
We The Earth is a partnership between The Straits Times and Rolex and its Perpetual Planet initiative. Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Dr Krithi Karanth is a stellar example of the many individuals who are doing their part to solve the issues earth faces.