Ullas Karanth, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of the world’s premier tiger experts and a leader in the effort to restore India’s depleted tiger populations. Raised in the South India state of Karnataka, he has spent much of his professional life studying and working to bring back tigers there, starting in Nagarahole National Park in the foothills of the Western Ghats, and then across a 10,000-square-mile region of that mountain range.
Karanth’s emphasis on scientific methods has frequently brought him into conflict with India’s forest bureaucracy, particularly over its insistence on estimating tiger populations based on footprint counts. Karanth instead pioneered the use of camera traps for population estimates based on identification of individual tigers. That method belatedly became the national standard after a 2004 scandal, when Sariska Tiger Reserve, officially estimated to have 26 tigers, turned out to have none.
Karanth’s willingness to report illegal logging, cattle grazing, and poaching in protected areas — and to implicate corrupt officials in the damage — has also earned him enemies. In one incident, an angry mob set a fire that destroyed his car, laboratory, and eight square miles of forest. But Karanth’s persistence has helped reestablish the tiger population in the Western Ghats and fueled his ambition to see that success extended across India and to empty tiger habitat far beyond.
Yale Environment 360: India has managed to maintain a population of about 3,000 tigers for decades. What’s the potential population in a nation that’s also home to 1.3 billion people?
Ullas Karanth: There are at least 300,000 square kilometers of the type of forest in which tigers can live, which are still not converted to agriculture and which are under state ownership, protected as state-owned forest reserves. A subset of that, maybe 10 or 15 percent, is protected as wildlife reserves. So basically if all these 300,000 square kilometers were reasonably well protected and the prey base is brought up, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.
e360: Is there any chance that that will happen?
Karanth: I don’t see why not. It’s essentially a function of building back the prey base, because the forest cover is there. Some of the better-protected areas like Nagarahole and Bandipur national parks, where I worked, have densities of 10 to 15 tigers per 100 square kilometers. Even if we averaged only 5 tigers per 100 square kilometers in that 300,000 square kilometers, you’re talking about 15,000 tigers.
“Up to now, the recovery of tigers has taken place in more fragmented forests in southwestern India and in parts of central India.”
e360: So why isn’t the prey base there already? Is it the bush meat trade?
Karanth: It’s not the bush meat trade in the sense that it’s hunted and sold in large markets, the kind of thing you see in Africa and in Laos and Burma. It is more hunting for consumption and selling to a few neighbors. Some of the most extensive forests are in central India, northeast India, eastern India, where there is very heavy illegal hunting of prey animals such as deer, antelopes, and wild pig by local people. So that’s where the scope for future recovery is tremendous. Up to now, the recovery of tigers has taken place in more fragmented forests in southwestern India and in parts of central India.
e360: So if you got the prey base back into those larger areas, you could have connected corridors for tigers?
Karanth: We have a fair amount of connectivity even now. But these are actually large blocks of connected forests in central India and northeast India. They’re devoid of prey, and devoid of tigers for that reason. Fixing that requires tough enforcement and intelligent planning of major projects to maintain connectivity.
e360: The current government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be more interested in running highways through tiger habitat than in protecting that habitat.
Karanth: Narendra Modi’s government has an agenda for rapid economic growth, and a fundamental part of that plan is to improve infrastructure projects. So it certainly has tried to accelerate the rate at which new infrastructure projects are being put in place. But it’s not that they haven’t put money into tigers. In fact, money into tiger conservation also has gone up.
Karanth: It’s not one or two. There are dozens of cases. The problem is this: All the prime wildlife areas — tiger areas, let’s say — right now occupy 4 or 5 percent of the total national land area. So if you are putting in new highways, you can go around them. But the powerful arm of the government that’s in charge goes ahead and plans highways without giving any consideration for such options or for mitigating measures. Then the conservationists go to court and fight, because there are strong laws protecting nature, and the thing gets logjammed in court for 10 to 20 years. Then far too expensive mitigation measures are proposed. The lack of good science in all this is also a problem. I’m not saying every highway or every problem will be solved, but with innovation it is possible to avoid the courts.
“If money goes into removing pressures such as livestock and people from natural forests, recovery will take place.”
e360: We have this problem in the United States, too, obviously — putting human need and convenience ahead of the natural world. Is it possible to persuade people that you can have both, in India and the developing world?
Karanth: I take it as a given that poor people in India want to be lifted out of poverty. They see examples like China and other countries. To me, trying to resist that massive urge for a better life among poor people is not something practical. Urbanization and industrialization have other negative consequences, like mining and highways. But in the long run, conservationists should try to see how we can use urbanization and the economic growth process to protect nature; you lose somewhere, but where else can you gain? That is how we should do it.
If you look at it from the very macro view, when you have people moving off the land and away from occupations like livestock grazing, hunting for protein, using wood and forest products for fuel and markets, when you take these basic pressures off and concentrate people in urban areas, it does free up quite a bit of pressure on nature. It allows nature to expand. Conservationists should recognize this basic reality.
e360: India actually pays for voluntary [village] relocations, particularly out of tiger habitat. But you also have organizations opposing that sort of thing, as a violation of human rights. What do you tell those people?
Karanth: Being truly fair, democratic, and voluntary is the key. If people really want to go, and if people get a better deal by moving out, I see nothing wrong with it. And in fact, now people are getting attracted to move by this process of urbanization and by the desire to access cell phones, highways, hospitals, schools, and other benefits, rather than remain in remote areas in the face of conflict with wildlife. We go to some of the remote areas, and you find only old people. All the young people have moved to towns and cities for different occupations. So that big pull is there, and we should take advantage of it.
e360: India also has a large fund for this that it’s not spending, doesn’t it?
Karanth: Initially, we didn’t have the money to compensate people fairly. And that, to me, is critical. They have to be really well compensated and fairly treated. Now the money is there. Over the years, India has built up a massive fund known as CAMPA by collecting fines from large industrial, mining, highway, and other such projects to compensate for forest loss. However, there is great reluctance on the part of forest managers to spend that money on relocation. They want to spend it on all sorts of other things, including new tree plantations, as part of the so-called “Green India Mission,” bringing in bulldozers and often planting a single species. We have seen that most of these plantations have failed to benefit nature. There’s a substantial amount of corruption involved in all this. My point is this: If that same money goes into just removing the pressures — all the livestock and people from natural forests — recovery will take place. And wildlife will come back.
e360: Tiger recovery is not just about India, although it seems that way most of the time. So what about the rest of Asia?
Karanth: In Southeast Asia, I would say Thailand has done the best job. They have very large blocks of forest and stable forest boundaries. They have a developed economy, so the subsistence pressures are not there on the scale of India. So if they stop hunting, tigers come back. I have seen this. Indonesia is struggling very hard, and Malaysia. But they have mostly rainforests, which are not as good [habitat] as the deciduous forest in central Thailand.
e360: And Vietnam?
Karanth: Vietnam is very hard. It’s fragmented. The culture is so oriented to hunting and wildlife consumption, and the tigers are almost gone. Cambodia and Laos have extensive forests, but the enforcement machinery is not there, and they have lost their tigers.
e360: And China has recently created new tiger protected areas in the northeast for the Siberian tiger.
Karanth: China is a very strange case. In the ’90s, they somehow identified the south China tiger as the tiger to be saved, and it was by then almost gone. So they spent a couple of decades banging their heads against a concrete wall to recover their Chinese tiger. Meanwhile, a few tigers from Russia were straggling over to northeast China, and we worked there, WCS [Wildlife Conservation Society] worked there, both in Russia and in northeast China, convincing them that this is where it would be worth making an effort. There is a resurgence of interest in nature in the younger generation and among academics, and I think it is that pressure, combined with the bad name China has got with the wildlife trade, but the result is that they have taken a serious decision to bring back tigers. And when they take a decision, they do things. They’re creating a 60,000-square-kilometer connected network of parks to bring back tigers in the northeast. From a dozen or so tigers at the start, there are certainly more than 20 to 30 there now. If they put in place what they have in mind now, the recovery is going to be quite spectacular.
“The aim is to protect nature in as intact a manner as possible, not create a Disneyland with artificial manipulation of habitat.”
e360: Despite the global interest in tigers and the fundraising on their behalf, you argue that much of that money gets spent on bureaucracy and infrastructure and things like those plantations that you talked about. How can you get the money to actually protect tigers?
Karanth: This is a problem specific to India, excessive spending on a small number of areas. It’s not a universal problem. Many countries still need funds. They don’t have the infrastructure for protection. In India, I think the argument is that there should be economic efficiency. Somebody should audit these tiger reserves and say, “Why the hell does Nagarahole, which used to be managed with 20 million rupees, now get 20 or 30 times that annual budget?” Because the budgets are so big, the wrong type of people are coming there to spend it. There should be a model of where you spend, where you don’t spend. It’s now whims and fancies. Do you need a water hole every kilometer? Your aim is to protect nature in as intact a manner as possible, not create a Disneyland of some kind with all sorts of artificial manipulation of habitat, just because there is money for it.
e360: You have been watching tigers for 40 years …
e360: So is there a story or a lesson that you would tell people from your experience to show them why tigers matter and why they should care about them?
Karanth: We come from nature, and we connect with nature, and losing this makes us poor emotionally, culturally, aesthetically. When I was a schoolboy, just getting into my teens, tigers were being slaughtered. Forests were being cleared, and in this whole landscape of 25,000 square kilometers in the Western Ghats, tigers were almost gone. There were probably less than 75 tigers in the whole landscape.
Today in the same landscape, there are more than 400 tigers. India’s economic growth rate has jumped from 3 percent to 7 percent. The number of people has probably quadrupled. There are 15 million people in that landscape. In agriculture, the daily wage of people has shot up from 2 or 3 rupees a day to 300 or 400 rupees a day. So there is increased prosperity. And there are more tigers. So why lose the tiger when you can do that instead? There’s a living example before me.