Her family lineage is illustrious. Daughter of renowned wildlife expert Dr Ullas Karanth and granddaughter of Jnanpith laureate Dr Kota Shivaram Karanth, conservation biologist Dr Krithi Karanth has been chosen as the recipient of the 2019 Women of Discovery Award by Wings WorldQuest. Obviously, she sounds delighted. In a telephonic conversation she shares her excitement. “It was unexpected, so it was a huge surprise. I had known a few friends who had got it earlier, and I realised what a big deal it was, and am happy as only two Indian women have won this award so far, and being the second Indian woman to win the award is a good feeling. The first winner, Aparajitha Datta, is also a friend and is also into conservation so it’s good. Women in India are doing interesting things and getting recognised for it.”
And it is a recognition that must be celebrated as sadly, in India, despite all their achievements, female scientists are not felicitated enough and continue to remain in the background. “Scientists in general are trained to be objective and not really talk about their work. That’s a cultural thing. There are scientists whom I call rockstars, who are able to engage the public and society through science. There is generally a hesitation to do that or be vocal about why science matters or why your research matters to the detriment of physics, chemistry or conservation. In our country, there is a lot of devaluing of scientists. In other countries, scientists are more respected and treated better. The scale of funding available to promote scientific projects is large. If you look at the Indian government budget, a minuscule amount is allocated to science, those are things that need to change. I have done this for 21 years, I have published a lot of macro-level studies that access patterns of species distribution and extinctions, impacts of wildlife tourism, voluntary resettlement and yet when I walk into a government office, there is a sort of disdain — you are a woman scientist and you can’t know much. It is frustrating and demoralising, and quite common. When I go in to meet people, I go on the defensive so when someone is actually valuing you, it is a pleasant surprise,” she candidly confesses.
Having grown up with stalwarts in her family which include her father and grandfather, Krithi had strong influences that paved the way for her career path. “I would add one more person to that list which is my mother, Dr Pratibha Karanth, not a wildlife enthusiast but a very independent and strong woman. She has had a professional career for 45 years. She has worked at the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing as a professor, and she started her own NGO where she helped children suffering from autism for almost 17 years now. In terms of parental influences, it was amazing, my parents are super high achievers. My mum got her Phd 10 years before my dad did, the joke in our family is that she is the first Dr Karanth, my dad is the second and I am the third. They were very supportive. My dad was like, ‘I prefer you don’t do medicine or engineering but find another profession you love and are good at.’ I had a happy childhood, no pressure was put on me to be at the top in my class. They wanted me to do well but I didn’t have to stand first or second. I was told, ‘find a profession that you will fall in love with and will want to pursue for 50 or 60 years,’ that made a huge difference. It didn’t matter whether I was a boy or girl. To me, my grandfather was the most extraordinary human being I had the privilege of knowing. I spent 18 years with him.
He was in another league, he did so many things and did them so well, so it wasn’t intimidating but very inspiring to have all of this around me when I was a kid,” she explains adding, “What I did observe was that all of them loved what they did and were incredibly passionate about it and they found meaning from their work in terms of their work to society, whether it was with people or animals. What was clear is that none of them were driven by money or accolades but by having made an impact, and making a difference was very strong in both my parents. You pick these values up as a kid in subtle ways.”
And yet it may come as a surprise to many that despite the freedom of choice and absence of pressure, Krithi was very reluctant to get into her father’s chosen field. “I had an amazing time as a kid, visiting all these parks with my father but I also saw that there were very difficult conservation battles that he and his colleagues took on many of which they lost, some which they won, they were cases and they were threats. So there is a difficult challenging side that comes with it, which is why though I loved being out in nature, I didn’t want to pursue it as a career,” she reveals.
But life sometimes decides the course of one’s journey and that’s what happened with Krithi. “I went to the University of Florida for my undergraduate degree and found the academic environment stimulating. That is where I excelled and wanted to be the best in everything and fell in love with research and had an amazing undergraduate mentor, Dr Michael Binford. I was a 19-year-old who walked into his office and said, I’m bored with my classes and can I work on one of your research projects and to this day he talks about that, about how I confidently walked in. He didn’t dismiss me, he gave me stuff to do, and after him there have been other mentors who have also nurtured all of this. For my masters at Yale, I came back to Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary and did my field work on the ghats. Being back, working in the jungles and seeing some of the challenges people face, that’s when I made up my mind,” she recalls.
Krithi is currently working on a project called Wildseve which has helped over 12,000 families file wildlife-compensation claims to receive their rightful benefits. “I started Wildseve about four years ago, and have researched for a very long while (on it). It has been recognised and appreciated but I felt that I spent 15 years doing research across India on conflicts in different states trying to identify what the challenges were, which species were involved and how people were trying to protect their lives, property and animals. One thing that stood out was that India as a country was pretty unique and that the government actually pays compensation for losses. The policies are very different across states and how they are processed is also different. India had a policy and a mandate to support people who have lost something to wildlife. From our research, we found that the process wasn’t transparent, they were a lot of delays, people were frustrated and had given up asking for claims as they would go back and forth five times, and spend more on travel than the compensation amount they received. This is one place we could have a quick direct impact. So we launched a toll free number where we have helped 600-odd settlements. About 12,000 filed claims for compensation and more than half of them have received money from the government. As an NGO, we act as the bridge, we don’t pay the compensation. But within 24 hours of people reaching out to us, we are helping the family. This has been a deeply rewarding science which has an evidence based contribution and a solution, which has made things better on the ground,” she says.
Wildlife aside, Krithi knows to how strike a balance between her personal and professional life. “I have a wonderful husband, two daughters (11 and 3) whom I value and love. We are all travel buffs so we travel the world as much as possible, when I am not working, (I like) going to a few countries every year to observe the world around us. My husband is an engineer-cum-industrialist. He also is my strongest supporter and critic,” she adds....