Krithi Karanth saw her first big cats when she was just a toddler. She was with her father and grandfather in the latter’s white Ambassador. It was early evening at Nagarhole National Park and the family was staking out a hidden fort when they spotted a tiger at the bottom of an overgrown moat. A few minutes later, they saw a leopard on the road. “I remember the day clearly. It was a thrilling moment for a child to see both a tiger and a leopard,” she says. Over the years, the jungle remained her playground and soon enough, became her workplace as well.
The call of the wild came naturally to Krithi. Her father, Dr Ullas is a tiger biologist and conservationist, and grandfather, Dr Kota Shivaram Karanth was a noted writer and environmentalist. “In our family, you actually don’t have a choice when it comes to going out into the wild,” she says. She started accompanying her father on his expeditions at the age of one, and continued through her childhood and teens.
She wasn’t pressured into joining a similar field but told to find a profession she loved. Krithi had seen first-hand the difficulties her father faced in his work and wasn’t too keen on joining the same field. She just knew she wanted a PhD like her mother, father, and grandfather and she did earn one at Duke University, and a post-doc at Columbia University.
While doing her master’s research (in Environmental Science) at Yale University she felt the call of the wild. Her interdisciplinary project involved four months of fieldwork at Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary. “I was doing ecological and social science research. I love both. I’ve always been an interdisciplinary person. That trip made me realise I wanted to get into conservation,” she says. On the second day of her fieldwork she broke her leg in a car accident. After wearing a cast for four weeks, she returned, determined to walk in the forest, do her interviews and line transacts. “I was a stubborn 23-year-old. People were very concerned about me and didn’t think I would finish the work. I just knew I had to complete it, no matter what.”
If that trip gave her career focus, another one in 2009 gave it direction. As part of a research project, Krithi visited India to look at wildlife tourism and its growth and impact on parks. She visited 10 parks in six months, leading a team of 75 volunteers. “The actual engagement, spending time on the ground and interacting with people helped me realise how much I love being in the field in India,” she says.
By then Krithi had spent 12 years in USA and everybody assumed that she would stay on and get into academia full-time. At 31, she returned home.
She became a Ramanujan Fellow, and joined the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) as a research fellow. She is now its chief conservation scientist.
In 2011, Krithi became National Geographic Society’s 10,000th research grantee and in 2012, an Emerging Explorer. The awards opened up her world. “It put me on a public platform for the first time and helped me connect with people, globally.” The experience changed her life because she got to go beyond the science, engaging with the public, sharing her learning, and getting people involved. “Many scientists don’t like being in the public spotlight and communicating why our work matters. We think if you publish a great paper in a top journal, the world will hear about it. They won’t. You have to connect with people in other ways.”
Krithi connected with wildlife early and it built in her a lifelong passion for the outdoors.
She currently lives in Bengaluru, but says she can only tolerate cities only to a certain extent. “I have two extremes. I love the crowded cities with lots of art, culture, and things to do, and I love extremely quiet places with no people around. I can’t handle the in-between.”
Her love for the outdoors has taken her to over 40 countries, sometimes to specifically see their wildlife. And while she enjoys the thrill of discovering a new place, she has a soft spot for the Bhadra, Bandipur, and Nagarhole parks. “Every time, I enter a park I feel this incredible happiness. There’s a sense of peace and excitement,” she says. “It only happens at wildlife parks, not zoos or botanical gardens. I like being in the wild, where you have no control over what’s going to pop up.”
The repeated excursions and an intimate understanding of these wildlife parks is what drove her to start Wild Seve at Bandipur and Nagarhole. India has a compensation system for people who sustain losses of livestock or crops, injury or human death because of wildlife. Wild Seve uses technology and live monitoring and response, to help people navigate the processes, paperwork, and transactional cost of the compensation programmes. “We play the bridging role and ensure that people get a response and know that somebody cares, not just for the animals, but for them as well,” she says. They have worked on 16,000 compensation cases so far.
Krithi realised that Wild Seve was helping adults in the community, but the kids were not interested in wildlife or lived in fear of it. She began Wild Shaale, a conservation environmental education program to get children excited about animals, to understand what animals do and how we’re interconnected. It addresses why conflict takes place and how to act in such situations. The programme is a combination of games, storytelling, presentations, videos, and has an adaptable curriculum. Krithi enjoys working with children in India because she finds them more empathetic than those in Europe or the US. Shaale has scaled up tremendously, now reaching 400 schools and over 20,000 children in Maharashtra, Karnataka and soon, Madhya Pradesh.
Making an impact
Krithi is adjunct associate professor at Duke University (USA) and affiliate faculty at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (India), a Rolex Laureate, and recently got awarded the 2020 Eisenhower Fellowship. She’s been a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, University of Florida’s Outstanding Young Alumnus, INK Fellow.
She teamed up with artist Raghava KK – fellow Explorer she met at the National Geographic Festival – to create a bilingual children’s book, Will you Play with Me. She is now working on a few more stories, also focussed on wildlife, and hopes to find the “courage” to someday write a non-fiction book.
The downside to being a woman scientist in India, is being treated with scepticism and disdain. “This is in contrast to the love, respect, and warmth you receive from prestigious organisations and universities abroad. It balances out the reaction I get here,” she says. Though she has grown a thick skin, she does find it hard. “I’ve done this for 22 years now. People the world over are quoting our work at CWS and think the conservation programmes are impactful and valuable.”
Krithi ensures she is supportive of other of women scientists, mentoring many. Through the years, she has mentored over 200 people, a process she finds “rewarding even though it is heavy investment”.
Despite her achievements, Krithi is not content. “What I’ve done is not enough. We can do more and can have a greater impact,” she says. “In terms of science, the impact is already there because we’re publishing a lot of papers. But, in terms of true conservation, I think there’s a lot more that can be done.” She wants to expand the Wild Seve and Wild Shaale programmes across India and the world, working with colleagues in Kenya, Sri Lanka, or Brazil.
The drive to keep working is a family trait. “My grandfather was working till his last breath. My father may be retired, but he still pulls in 14-16 hour days. I don’t think this family has the genes to sit still,” she says. “As long as my mind is working, there is always something I will be able to do.”
When not working, Krithi can be found at home with her family – husband Avinash Sosale (they married in 2013), and two children. The family shares her love for animals. Krithi has a lot of pets through her life – and the family now has two cats, Nala and Bagheera. The children sometimes accompany her on field trips and the family often travels together. A much talked about holiday was one to Kenya where they saw cheetah, rhinoceros, giraffes, lions and more. “I had to wait 41 years to see a wild cheetah, but my daughters saw it when they were 3 and 12.” The Karanths certainly love their cats, wild and otherwise.
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