By Cheyenne Coxon
During her childhood in India, Krithi Karanth first saw tigers and elephants in the wild at an age when most people have barely learned to ride a bike. Now, she uses science and technology to help India’s people navigate the challenges of sharing their homes with wildlife.
Karanth has pioneered research and solutions to reduce human-wildlife conflict, which can cause people substantial economic loss and, sometimes, loss of life. She began getting recognized for this work as a National Geographic Explorer in 2012 and has since taken it to new heights as the Chief Conservation Scientist and Executive Director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies in India, where she started two human-wildlife coexistence programs for conflict prone communities, Wild Seve and Wild Shaale.
Her focus on science-based solutions drew her to the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP), which NCEAS co-leads. The working group she led is helping government planners in India navigate the current infrastructure boom by providing up-to-date ecological information. They recently completed an open access web portal, called India Under Construction, which contains spatial data on landscape types, wildlife habitat, and protected areas. Incorporating this information into decision-making will allow officials to plan projects that do not come at the expense of wildlife conservation.
“I definitely wanted to be a part of building this group because of its rigorous science and multi-fold impact on conservation,” said Karanth. “Most traditional grant opportunities focus exclusively on science or on conservation. SNAPP is a fantastic mix of the two. They have a high emphasis on actual impact as opposed to just research, and this sets SNAPP apart.”
In this month’s NCEAS portrait, Karanth shares how her SNAPP work could help promote harmony between wildlife and people in India.
Some of your more recent work has involved integrating technology and conservation. What role do you see for technology in the field, and what role is technology playing in your SNAPP project?
KK: I do think technology has a role to play in improving conservation, but I do not think it can solve all problems. At the end of the day, as a conservationist, you still need to be in the field and collect data, and you need to have people engaging in dialogue to move things forward. I do think technology provides opportunity for information to reach large numbers of people quickly, which definitely makes the process easier.
One of the major outcomes of our SNAPP working group’s project is a data portal that will make baseline spatial data accessible to anyone in India. This can be used to drive future science, advocacy, and conservation efforts. This is just the first step. We need to do a lot more.
How will the data portal be used, and why do you think it's important to India?
KK: The data portal makes baseline data available to everybody. Utilizing this, we have conducted research to analyze structural and functional connectivity between terrestrial landscapes in India. We have provided baseline information and new analyses that can be replicated and scaled across different landscapes.
It is particularly important in India because of our booming economy. Many wildlife areas are going to be subjected to significant pressure from infrastructural growth. Most planners, developers, and decision makers do not refer to or ignore the baseline ecological data while making landscape-level decisions. Our baseline information empowers the decision makers, but it also allows local advocacy groups to use this information and engage with data-driven practices.
What role has synthesis science played in the Landscape Connectivity in India working group?
KK: Collaboration added very crucial dimensions to this project. Our original project was focused on terrestrial connectivity – to understand which areas were critical, vulnerable, and viable, and areas where animals would move and encounter significant impediments. Through the workshops we conducted, we have expanded the scope of the project. For example, Shishir Rao, a research associate at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, led research on hydrological connectivity and the environmental impacts of small dams, even though hydrological connectivity was not a part of the original project. I hope we can build more partnerships and collaborations.
The biggest challenge this project addressed, which is related to synthesis, is the lack of baseline data – a majority of the data layers that we are making accessible to the public were hidden, unavailable, or inaccurate. It isn’t just about accessibility. We corrected basic information such as boundaries of protected areas and created a very comprehensive set of layers. We have created a solid foundation for future research and collaborative conservation programs to build from here.
What is one of the most important things you’ve learned from your participation in a SNAPP working group?
KK: I’ve learned to focus on long-term outputs and impacts. The usual duration of a SNAPP project is two years, but I think I learned that we shouldn’t always set these hard deadlines. The impacts of SNAPP working groups, particularly our own database, could very well span over decades. It’s crucial to not rush things when our vision can be long term. The next challenge will be getting the government to acknowledge and use this information to make smarter and more sustainable decisions. This challenge might take more time because of the due process required in India.
What has been most rewarding and most challenging about working on human-wildlife conflict?
KK: Programs like Wild Seve and Wild Shaale have been the most rewarding aspect of my job. I still do get a kick out of every publication, but equally important is knowing the monitoring, assistance, and education provided are having a direct impact on people’s lives, or that you’ve contributed to children viewing wildlife in a more positive light.
In terms of challenges, we do face a lot of governmental resistance towards accepting and incorporating science and working with NGOs. Particularly in India, there is a lack of acceptance of science and policies based on scientific results. It isn’t just our organization. There are several incredible scientists in this field who could multiply the positive impacts they are having if the government was more open to collaboration. When it comes to interventions, there is a lot of room for collaboration between NGOs and the government.
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Cheyenne Coxon was a Science Communication Fellow for the 2018-2019 school year, while she completed her Master's degree at UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.
NCEAS Portraits feature the people behind our work and impact.