To National Geographic Explorer Dr. Krithi Karanth, everyone in every part of the world is born with a fundamental connection to nature. For herself, this was certainly the case. Growing up in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, India, she began accompanying her father, leading tiger expert and biologist Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, into the jungle at just two years old.
“I had an amazing childhood watching animals with my dad,” Karanth recalls. By the time she was a teenager, her encounters with wildlife became lessons in understanding the animals—a father showing his daughter how to track tigers and set camera traps in the undergrowth.
But in India, the relationship between people, animals and nature is not always as positive, given the country’s particularly acute human-wildlife conflict. “Kids see pretty dramatic scenes of conflict in their villages. This is elephants destroying crops or tigers and leopards taking their livestock,” Karanth describes. “Sometimes people in their homes or villages are badly injured or killed.”
According to Karanth’s research, she estimates about 100,000 such incidents are reported to the government each year. Financially-strapped families seldom receive ex-gratia payments that fully cover their losses.
“Kids grow up with a negative, traumatic perspective on wildlife and significant economic hardship,” Karanth summarizes. “They’re not going to appreciate the fact that India has the highest number of tigers or Asian elephants in the world, that it’s the best place to witness extraordinary animals.”
Karanth became a conservation scientist in 1999 and in 2011, she received her first grant from the National Geographic Society—the Society’s 10,000th grant—to support her research on India’s human-wildlife conflict. Over the course of her work, she has conducted macro-level studies assessing patterns of species distributions and extinctions, impacts of wildlife tourism, consequences of voluntary resettlement, land use change and understanding human-wildlife interactions.
By 2017, Karanth had more than two decades of extensive research under her belt. That year, a fortuitous conversation with fellow Explorer Gabby Salazar in Washington, D.C., at the National Geographic Society’s Explorers Festival, an annual convening of Explorers, shifted her mindset towards education.
“We just got talking, and I told her, ‘one of the things I'd really like to do is figure out a conservation program that uses education, art, storytelling, and games to inspire children who live around wildlife in India,’” she remembers. “I felt that it would be good to design something that gets them to understand all the amazing animals we have and learn to coexist with them.”
The idea immediately intrigued Salazar, and the two fell into work together with the frenzied energy of kindred minds. “We complement each other really well because she brings the education expertise, and I bring the wildlife and field conservation expertise,” Karanth says with a smile. “Gabby and I are very dear friends.” Within half a year, Karanth and Salazar had the first version of "Wild Shaale" on their hands.
A program designed for students who come into frequent contact with wildlife, Wild Shaale—which translates to “wild school” in the Kannada language—aims to nurture Indian youth’s understanding of and interest in surrounding wild animals and habitats. The conservation education program fills a gap in environmental learning that affects some villages more than others.
While it is fortunate that a basic environmental education is made mandatory by India’s constitution, Karanth believes the challenge lies in the quality of the curriculum and whether it’s delivered effectively and consistently. “You have to visualize what these schools look like. They're often very small schools in really remote places. They may not have electricity—forget having computers, internet, iPads, or anything.”
Together with educators working at the Centre for Wildlife Studies—where Karanth serves as chief conservation scientist—and with support from the Society, Karanth launched the program’s pilot in 38 classrooms in 2018.
Since then, it has expanded rapidly to reach more than 700 schools and 30,000 children between the ages of 10 and 13 in villages with proximity to 20 wildlife parks across her native Western Ghats. This year, Wild Shaale will launch in at least 300 schools, translated into seven languages with a revamped curriculum. “We've been working very hard to get this ready, so we're really excited to kick this off in July,” Karanth says.
The new program of study grew from five modules to 10, building in more time for students to develop a genuine understanding of wildlife and wild spaces, imparting practical strategies for coexisting with wildlife in a way that meets the needs of both people and animals, and moving beyond wildlife tolerance to concepts of conservation and broader environmental issues.
Modules center around art, multimedia storytelling, and play-based learning. Students paint, play games, and watch presentations on Indian wildlife, observing animal behaviors and environments. It’s not unusual for an entire classroom to erupt in cheer when watching a video of elephants swimming through a river with their trunks held aloft.
“The idea is that you start by making learning fun,” Karanth explains, “and if you make learning fun, then they're already excited about wildlife. I think that’s what's really made a difference.”
In one example of play, students create colorful tiger and leopard masks. Each vibrant mask comes out differently—a model activity that demonstrates how every animal is unique, just as every student is unique. As they play behind their masks, they imagine themselves as tigers and leopards, finding ways to identify and empathize with the wildlife.
Encouraging the students to find commonalities between themselves and the animals is the first step to changing perceptions and hopefully, behaviors. “It comes down to the same things: we need food, we need water, we need space. Then they start to understand why situations of conflict arise,” Karanth says. “But then how do you convince them not to get angry, not to retaliate in a way that leads to harm? That's something we're trying to work on. It's not easy.”
Karanth sees Wild Shaale’s role as laying the foundation for positive human-wildlife relationships, but it’s really in the hands of the students and their local educators to continue being curious about the wildlife and investigating their newfound interests. This year, Wild Shaale has developed educational guidebooks with numerous lessons and activities that will stay with local teachers at the end of the program. “We hope that the teachers will choose to carry forward elements of what they've seen in Wild Shaale. There are at least 40 things they can do with their kids if they want to.”
Karanth holds out hope that the students will be motivated to ask, ‘what else can we do?’ in the months that follow. She’s witnessed moments that point to real change throughout the years which encourage her: the heartwarming bonds students create with Wild Shaale educators, small presents like feathers and seeds that they gift the team, and the increasing number of wildlife-related questions that begin to crop up.
With Wild Shaale’s success in India, Karanth envisions the program one day going global: “I believe Wild Shaale should go to every kid, every kid on the planet, whether it's somebody growing up in India or elsewhere. The kind of stuff we have done with Indian animals can very easily be replicated in South America with the jaguar, North America with cougars and wolves, Africa with lions and elephants.”
But for now, Karanth is laser-focused on her hope for the youth of her home country. Her latest vision is to bring the current version of Wild Shaale to 3,000 schools in the Western Ghats, reaching half a million children in the next few years. Perhaps after that, she’ll take the program to new heights.
“Wild Shaale is tying in everybody's motivation to get the next generation to really care; it's a long-term investment in building true tolerance for wildlife, true appreciation and interest in our own natural heritage.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
For the National Geographic Society: Melissa Zhu is a content strategy coordinator at the Society with a passion for writing. When she's not focused on advancing the nonprofit mission of Nat Geo, you might find her immersed in a good book or admiring the world around her on a long walk.