Conservation biologist Krithi K. Karanth talks of the dicey drama that wildlife tourism has become, her own experiences in the wild, and more

Krithi K. Karanth spotted her first leopard in the wild when she was barely three, and by eight, had moved on to tracking tigers along with her well-known conservationist father, K. Ullas Karanth, synonymous with tiger conservation in India. Yet, till she was about 19, she was apprehensive of being in the same field of work as either of her illustrious parents; her mother Prathibha Karanth is a speech therapist working with autistic children. “I thought I should be an architect or a lawyer… But my love for biology brought me back. My dad is a remarkable individual but that doesn’t mean there is no room for me in the same field of work. We need a lot more people as there are enough issues in conservation,” says Krithi, a conservation biologist.

Krithi, who is associate conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS-New York) and executive director of Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS -Bangalore), was honoured as National Geographic Society’s 10,000th grantee in 2011 and selected as National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2012.

She is in fact one of those rare third-generation environmentalists in the country — her grandfather Kota Shivaram Karanth was an iconic Kannada writer, environmentalist and social activist. Over the last 16 years, Krithi’s research in India has encompassed a broad range of issues examining human dimensions of wildlife conservation.

She has conducted macro-level studies assessing impacts of wildlife tourism in reserves, consequences of voluntary resettlement and more recently, on understanding ecological and social dimensions of human-wildlife conflicts and land use change.

“Five years ago I did a study on tourism across 10 national parks across India, trying to assess how wildlife tourism has grown. We interviewed over 340 homestays and resorts, how they engage with the forest department. We spoke to tourists and their perception of park management and how they thought local communities were involved.”

Krithi observes how post 2000, there was a crowding of wildlife parks with the economic boom and growth of the middle class. “Going on a wildlife holiday has become much cooler, leading to an explosion in such tourism.” But, as Krithi points out, our National parks are small, containing a high density of animals and a high density of people outside their borders, thus putting a lot of pressure on both. “We need to come up with caps and limits on the number of people entering a national park each day,” she says.

Tourist attitudes too vary remarkably — in North and Central India she found that tourists thought their trip was not a success if they didn’t see a tiger in the safari. This attitude was not visible in the South. Moreover, parks in the South offered better and cheaper accessibility, while up North a single safari trip can set you back by at least Rs. 6,000. “So what about accessibility for the middle class?” Krithi also reiterates that while we criticise local communities (living around forest areas) for taking firewood from the forests, we tend to ignore resources used up for tourists — most resorts have flowing fountains, huge swimming pools and use firewood too.

“There are ethical issues of how many of these resorts are actually eco-friendly. For most resorts, it’s an investment opportunity. There is therefore a need to call for private entities to better engage with the public. Parks with sexy charismatic species generate revenue. But the revenue goes to private individuals, not the communities living around them.”

Krithi however believes despite its flaws, the National park system in the country works. India still has a greater concentration of wildlife than any other country in the the world, compared to its forest cover.

During the course of her PhD, Krithi undertook another massive study on animal species in India, specially mammals that had gone extinct between 1850 and 2000. “The British were great at record keeping of India’s natural history and biodiversity,” she notes. She pored over 200 travelogues by both the British travellers and Indian maharajas, and contacted over 50 museums in America and Europe.

“When people said there were tigers everywhere in India they were mostly right, because till 1900s, tigers could be found in over 3,000 locations all over the country. “With the forest and the wild being an essential part of her growing up years, Krithi recalls a dramatic experience that brought the family, including her four-year-old daughter, closer. In May 2011, Krithi, her parents, and her daughter were at their home/field station on the fringes of the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary. When they heard predator warning calls from the jungle, her father motioned them to stay still. After a short while, a female leopard came out of the sanctuary, walked up and sat at a nearby waterhole, as all of them watched in wonder. “For me it was like things coming full circle...one of the biggest rewards.”

Krithi Karanth will speak about eco-tourism and conservation at the Wildlife Conservation and You 2014 conference at the Azim Premji Foundation, Sarjapur Road on June 21 and 22. For detailed session schedules check