So You Want to be a Conservation Biologist? Insights from a Life Dedicated to Tiger Conservation in India

Each week on the blog we pull back the curtain on our Wildlife Ecology & Conservation graduate students’ seminar class. This post is by PhD student Wesley Boone.

The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is arguably one of the most charismatic species in the world. Tigers have been popularized by pop culture (think Shere Khan, Tony the Tiger, and Tigger), are among the most common mascots in US college sports , and are adopted by numerous conservation campaigns. With so much positive publicity, it might be hard to believe that conserving tigers is an extremely complicated task. However, this challenge has been the focus of decades of research by Dr. Ullas Karanth. 

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Dr. Karanth with monitoring equipment.

Dr. Karanth did not begin his career with the aspiration of becoming a prominent conservation biologist. Instead, Dr. Karanth hoped to become an engineer, for which he attended college and received a Bachelors of Science in 1971. Following the completion of his degree, Dr. Karanth spent years working various jobs, including farming and selling farm equipment. After eight years of farming, Dr. Karanth met Dr. Mel Sunquist at a research conference in Bombay, India (present-day Mumbai, India). This meeting was professionally fruitful, as and the college educated engineer was soon at the University of Florida conducting ecological research. Dr. Karanth fondly remembers his conversion to ecology as being akin to “throwing a fish into water.” Dr. Karanth earned a master’s degree in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Florida in 1988, and a doctorate in Applied Zoology from Mangalore University in 1993.

Dr. Karanth’s research, while inclusive of many large mammal species, has focused on tiger conservation. In the years since he founded the Centre for Wildlife Sciences in 1984, Dr. Karanth has worked tirelessly to further his field of research. Each advancement, however, has been met with objection from national authorities. Dr. Karanth’s first issues arose when he collared four tigers and three leopards with tracking devices to study the animals’ movement. Following the incidental death of several collared tigers, authorities pulled his research permit believing he might in some way be connected to illegal tiger trading. Dr. Karanth took the issue to court, won the case, and restarted research. In return for his research efforts, Dr. Karanth was able to determine that tigers in Nagarahole National Park required15 km2 in range land per animal to survive. Siberian tigers, by comparison, may require upwards of 100 km2 each. This difference highlights the extreme productivity of the Nagarahole ecosystem.

Starting in 1991 Dr. Karanth pioneered a new method of estimating tiger abundance utilizing camera traps. Camera traps were uniformly placed in conservation areas known to have tiger populations. Then, individual tigers were identified in camera trap photos using their unique markings. This enabled Dr. Karanth to conduct a capture-recapture analysis, and thereby estimate abundance with a high degree of certainty.

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Dr. Karanth conducting tiger research. Photo by Fiona Sunquist.

Dr. Karanth presented the results to Indian politicians in hopes of expanding the scope of his camera trap study. Instead, those politicians believed traditional methods of estimating tiger abundanceutilizing unique identifiers within tiger trackswere sufficient. To continue using his camera trapping methodology, Dr. Karanth was forced to obtain permission from a senior politician and equipment was purchased and monitoring began. However, before long his permits were rescinded and the ensuing litigation resulted in three years of lost data. Dr. Karanth persevered through all of this by remembering what was at stake: the continued existence of tigers in India. Although he faced many obstacles, he overcame each and was rewarded with resounding success.

Today, India has adopted some of Dr. Karanth’s tiger monitoring protocols, in part due to his continued lobbying and partially due to a scandal in which some parks were using plaster tiger paw casts to hide their dwindling population densities and/or extirpations, which would have prompted funding cuts for those parks reductions. However, application of his monitoring methods has been hindered by corruption, which has siphoned away funds intended for camera procurement and staff wages. Although India has not fully adopted his methods, other nations with tiger populations, including Thailand, have, and the persistence of tiger populations throughout southeast Asia is better because of it.

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Dr. Karanth in the field. Photo by Michael Nichols.

Dr. Karanth’s story is one of perseverance in face of blatant, misinformed, and unrelenting obstructionism. However, owing to Dr. Karanth’s grit, his is a success story showing how one person can change the face of conservation in both policy and practice. His path stands as an example of how conservationists across the globe may succeed regardless of political whims and so preserve the world’s natural resources for future generations.

Dr. Karanth has been a Senior Conservation Scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society since 1988. He serves as adjunct faculty at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India and the Department of Wildlife Biology at the University of Minnesota, and supervises doctoral graduate students at Manipal University in Karnataka, India. Dr. Karanth has advised conservation efforts in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Russia. Dr. Karanth has authored more than 75 peer reviewed scientific publications, and authored/edited four books. He has been awarded the Sierra Club’s International EarthCare award and World Wildlife Fund’s Sanctuary Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr. Karanth was inducted into the Indian Academy of Sciences in 2008.