Nestled in the lush green hills of the Western Ghats in South India is the tiny town of Puttur. The dense surrounding forests are home to a rich variety of flora and fauna, mostly undisturbed by humans yet bustling with activity. This natural paradise of fast rivers and steep rocks became the perfect back yard and school for one of India’s leading nature conservationists and internationally recognized tiger biologists: Dr. Ullas Karanth, Director for Science-Asia Wildlife Conservation Society.
“All children are genetically programmed to love watching nature and observing animals,” Ullas tells me. “Formal education significantly whittles away that gift.” A shining example of the nature-loving philosophy, Ullas, who was born in 1948, had no formal schooling until he turned 11. His father, Dr. Shivarama Karanth—who is a literary giant in India as well as an innovative educator–ran an experimental school that let children learn at their own pace in the outdoors, freed from the pressure to compete and study by rote. “A teacher would come home to teach math a couple of days a week. My mother taught me language,” recalls Ullas. “The remaining time was invested in exploring, roaming the forests, watching birds and animals, and playing.”
Not surprisingly, by the time Ullas joined a regular school in sixth grade, he was already deeply aware of the importance of nature and conservation. “My father had a large role to play in my upbringing,” says Ullas, fondly remembering his role model. “Not many people know that my father was also a man of science, an aesthete, and a biologist. We had a zoo at home. He read to me the books of legendary hunter-turned-conservationist and author Jim Corbett, and our large library at home was stocked with National Geographic issues dating back to 1938.”
Ullas’ insatiable hunger to observe wildlife led him to make frequent trips to Nagarhole, the 248-square-mile nature reserve in South India. He often accompanied one of his uncles, a forest department official on his rounds into the woods. “I made friends with the rangers and learned a lot from them about life in the forests,” he says, adding that it also helped him develop a very close connection with Nagarhole.
Ullas’ interest in tigers was ignited at an early age after he read Corbett’s books as well as those by the British-Indian hunter and writer, Kenneth Anderson. Still, despite his ongoing fascination with big cats, Ullas wasn’t sure that his future career lay in nature conservation. Much to his father’s disappointment, he started a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the National Institute of Technology Karnataka in Surathkal, India.
Luckily, it didn’t take long before his true calling came storming back. In his second year at college, he came across an article in Life magazine entitled “My Year with Tigers,” by George Schaller. “It was mind-blowing,” says Ullas. “I had read hundreds of books about tigers, which were mostly stories or anecdotes. This was something totally different. Nobody else had viewed tigers though a scientific lens.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree, and a brief stint selling farm equipment, Ullas went back to his favorite place, Nagarhole, purchasing a nearby farm, which he started working. This taught him not only about the local animals, but also about the tribes who formed an integral part of the ecosystem in the area. Ullas sometimes accompanied hunters into the forests, but soon became alarmed. “Back then, in the 1960s, the law was so loose that there was a fine line differentiating hunters from poachers,” he explains. He soon abandoned the hunting groups, instead going into the woods with the rangers and forest officials who were working to stop the poaching. “I realized that there was very little left of our wildlife.”
Wondering what would become of the tigers eventually led Ullas to the University of Florida, where he started on his masters’ degree in Wildlife Biology when he was in his late thirties. One of his reasons was heartfelt: “There are more tiger experts in the world than tigers in the wild,” he says. “It was clear to me that I wanted to be a trained tiger expert, and not someone who just talks.”
Another reason was practical: Dr. Melvin Sunquist, a preeminent authority on tigers, taught there. “I specifically wanted to work with Professor Sunquist because he had done extensive work with tigers all over the world,” Ullas says. “He was the first one to experiment with radio collars to track tiger movements.” Ullas learned the intricacies of tracking tigers, tranquilizing them, fitting radio collars, monitoring the signals, and installing and overseeing tripping cameras that took photographs when a tiger unwittingly approached. “All these techniques were a much more robust method than counting the tiger population by the paw prints alone,” he adds about the pre-technology practice in India that nearly always yielded inaccurate results.
Armed with his new degree, Ullas returned to his home terrain when the Wildlife Conservation Society hired him as the director of their India program. Introducing the new methods came with its own set of challenges for locals. “Nature conservation is different in every part of the world. What works in one place will not necessarily work everywhere,” he says. Over the years, Ullas figured out how to convince locals on the most successful techniques, and grew to become a pioneer of many modern tiger tracking and cornering methods that are now widely used by conservationists around the world.
Ullas adds that it’s important to approach conservation from multiple perspectives. “I perceive conservation both as a scientific and social challenge. You need to scientifically track tigers, and apply the best statistical models to measure,” he explains. “One also has to think of how to manage people who want to use the tiger habitat for their existence. It’s easy to get branded as anti-human but the idea here is to keep both humans and animals safe.
“Gone are the days when the local villages were dependent on the land. The population density here is very high, and there is the inevitable spread of development. If people have farms and raise livestock close to tiger habitats, there is bound to be conflict. If we want to see the wildlife numbers increase, we need to keep the human settlements separate from wildlife habitat,” he adds.
Fortunately, decades of focused efforts have been quite successful. “When I went into the forests in the 1960s, the tiger numbers were rapidly falling. Now, their numbers are back. I don’t believe in all the ‘tigers are doomed’ statements people randomly make. It’s no longer true. The conservation efforts are working, and if we continue doing the right things, tiger numbers will continue to grow,” he says with quiet confidence. He’s also passed the torch to his daughter, Krithi Karanth. “She is an ecologist with a focus on human-wildlife interface,” he says. “She has a master’s from Yale and a PhD. from Duke University,” he adds, clearly proud of his daughter’s academic achievements.
Now a still-youthful 65, Ullas tries to go to the forests as frequently as he can. “It’s getting harder now,” he says with a laugh. “My younger colleagues have more fun these days.”
Somehow, I doubt it.
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The history of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) research in India dates to the 1960s, when the first scientific study of wild tigers was begun. The WCS-India Program was formally launched two decades later. Today, the program focuses on the wildlife “stars,” such as tigers and elephants, in part to get the public to rally behind its efforts. WCS has done this through a systematic approach involving rigorous research, local capacity building, government consulting, and site-based conservation action.
As a result of their work to monitor tiger and their prey populations in the Malenad-Mysore Tiger Landscape in the Western Ghats—one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots—protected areas have been expanded and a strong local constituency in support of wildlife conservation has been created.