Photograph by Austin Perez
Photograph by Shekar Dattatri/Conservation India
Birthplace: Mangalore, India
Current City: Bangalore, India
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Lawyer, architect, archaeologist
How did you get started in your field of work?
I was born and raised in India. As a child I spent a lot of time with my father, Dr. Ullas Karanth, visiting several parks and watching wildlife with him. I saw my first wild tiger and leopard by the time I was three. I got to see him track tigers and leopards that he had collared in India's Nagarahole National Park in the 1990s. I moved to the U.S. in 1997 for my bachelor's at the University of Florida, followed by master's at Yale, Ph.D. at Duke University, and postdoc at Columbia. I was very fortunate to have been mentored by several wonderful professors in all these universities.
It was at Yale that I first realized my true passion was in conservation biology, and I designed my first field project to examine forest disturbance and resettlement of people from Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to tigers?
The knowledge that we have to act to save the wild places and wildlife we care about now. India is perhaps extreme in that we have a lot of biodiversity still left in the 3 percent of protected land, and people's tolerance for some species has allowed them to persist. It is my generation's responsibility that we act now using the best science and link it to constructive, on-ground conservation action.
What's a normal day like for you?
There are field days and city days. In the field I now work with teams of volunteers to collect my data. This involves long hours of driving or walking, conducting surveys, interacting with people. I just wrapped up a project in central India with 40 volunteers where we visited 300 villages and conducted 3,000 surveys on wildlife distribution, human-wildlife conflicts, and land use in one month.
In the city, I use my time to write scientific papers, interact with my colleagues, teach in a master's program and raise my four-year-old daughter.
Do you have a hero?
My heroes are my parents, Drs. Prathibha and Ullas Karanth.
My mum has inspired me to be a strong and independent woman. My father's incredible passion and commitment to both science and conservation continue to motivate me. And both of them very early on showed me that you have to love what you do professionally and give it your best.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience and most challenging has been fieldwork in Bhadra that I did for my master's in 2002. Fieldwork began with a bang. A car accident on the second day resulted in a cracked kneecap and a cast on my leg. Initially, I was devastated but I stuck out grimly and modified the study design. A month later I hobbled back to the field and interviewed 60 percent of resettled households about their experience. I also walked line transects (in pouring rain, rugged terrain, and getting bitten by leeches) to collect my ecological data. Though physically painful and mentally challenging at times, the satisfaction of being able to conduct research in a tropical field site was unbeatable. It taught me to be a tough field biologist and strengthened my pursuit of a career in conservation biology.
What are your other passions?
Travel. I have visited 17 countries and want to see the world. I also enjoy dance and theater performances.
What do you do in your free time?
Read—fiction and non-fiction.
If you could have people do one thing to help save tigers, what would it be?
We need to increase people's interest and awareness about wildlife and conservation issues and reduce the general disconnect from nature. Urban Indians and others are beginning to spend time and money visiting parks to view wildlife (especially tigers) and must be more conscious of their impacts, particularly via wildlife tourism. We need broader public support for existing protected areas, which now cover less than 3 percent of total land area and support a lot of wildlife. We also have to address people's needs and requests such as voluntary relocation from parks so that they have opportunities for better lives as well.
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In Their Words
It is my generation's responsibility that we act now using the best science and link it to constructive, on-ground conservation action.
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Hear an interview with Karanth on National Geographic Weekend.
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Datta explores the conservation challenges facing one of India's last vast tracts of wilderness.
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