Paw patrol: Ullas Karanth talks to Wknd about his life and new book,Among Tigers

Dec 09, 2022 07:46 PM IST

He was the first person in India to fit a radio collar onto a tiger, in 1990. He pioneered the use of camera traps, bringing hard data into the big cat census. ‘We’ve come further than I could have imagined as a young,’ Karanth says. ‘But not as far as some would have you believe.’

He has crawled through the jungle, Indiana Jones-style, in pursuit of a sedated tiger. They usually collapse in about 200 metres, says Ullas Karanth, 74.

(Sampath Kumar GP / HT Photo) PREMIUM
(Sampath Kumar GP / HT Photo)

The closest he ever came to one? He wasn’t looking into the gold of its eyes. In fact, he was hoping it wouldn’t see him, as he perched on a tree well within reach, hoping to shoot a dart at it, put it to sleep, and fit it with a radio collar. “That one was so close, I could see the small, dappled leaf shadows moving on its coat.”

Karanth was eventually the first person in India to fit a radio collar on a tiger, in 1990. He also pioneered the use of camera traps, which revolutionised how tiger populations are studied here. Some of his achievements, memories and adventures form the basis of his fourth book, Among Tigers, a journey through his three-decade race to help save the big cat.

He fell in love with the wilds early, Karanth says. Growing up in Puttur, a rural town in Karnataka, attending an experimental school run by his father, the Kannada author Shivarama Karanth, he spent lazy days in forested areas, reading books by authors such as Jim Corbett and later the biologist and conservationist George Schaller.

“I believe all children are born with an inherent love for nature. They slowly lose it as formal schooling is imposed upon them. Thankfully that did not happen to me,” he says.

After a brief stint in mechanical engineering, Karanth switched to farming, and from there, discovered the then-budding field of wildlife conservation.

‘The tiger numbers reflect a growth rate of less than 1% per annum. If we made the right decisions now, we could support 10,000 or more tigers in the wild,’ says Karanth, a wildlife ecologist. (Photo courtesy Ullas Karanth)
‘The tiger numbers reflect a growth rate of less than 1% per annum. If we made the right decisions now, we could support 10,000 or more tigers in the wild,’ says Karanth, a wildlife ecologist. (Photo courtesy Ullas Karanth)

In 1972, aged 24, he met and fell in love with speech pathologist Prathibha Shetty. Their daughter, Krithi Karanth, is now 42 and an award-winning conservationist herself, specialising in new approaches to human-animal conflict. “Prathibha and I stood by each other as our careers had their ups and downs. She became internationally renowned in her field. I am very proud of what Krithi has accomplished, without ever leaning on me. I did the same with my father, who was a legendary cultural icon,” Karanth says.

His big turn into tiger territory came in 1983, when he met wildlife ecologist Mel Sunquist, then of the Smithsonian Institution, at a conference organised by the Bombay Natural History Society. The two men hit it off and over their shared passion for the big cat. With his guidance, Karanth signed up for a post-graduate degree in wildlife ecology at the University of Florida.

From this point on, this tiger would be his mission. It was a bit like enlisting in a war.

Tigers were being poached for their skin, their prey hunted for food. “When I was in my late teens in the 1960s, there were fewer than 2,000 left in the wild in India, and I believed that they would soon be extinct. From there, we now have around 3,000, which is certainly a significant achievement,” Karanth says.

As he was working with forest officials and local populations to gather accurate data via radio collars and camera traps (until this point, censuses had relied on pug marks), the country was pivoting too. In 1972, prime minister Indira Gandhi backed and ushered through the Wild Life (Protection) Act, banning all hunting for sport, and all trade in the skin of endangered animals. “This was a really bold move back then because state governments earned much revenue from such trade,” Karanth says.

Implementation of the new law was a challenge, and the results are still visible in the way the tiger population is distributed across the country, he adds. In better-developed states with stronger law enforcement such as Maharashtra and Karnataka, the population grew faster; in the harder-to-police forests of states such as Jharkhand and Nagaland, the numbers grew slowly or not at all.

Read an exclusive excerpt from Among Tigers by Ullas Karanth

Overall though, Karanth says, there has been the kind of widespread social change he couldn’t have imagined. Hunting for the pot, for instance, has declined dramatically amid a rise in farmed meat, thus increasing the availability of tiger prey. Forest encroachments from infrastructure and human settlements, of course, pose threats to these habitats today.

Three things in particular trouble him with respect to tigers today, Karanth says: An unrealistic sense of self-congratulation about their numbers; an excess of bureaucracy; and the waste of funding on money sinks that include grand celebratory events for relatively minor achievements.

“The tiger numbers reflect a growth rate of less than 1% per annum. India has about 380,000 sq km of suitable forest, of which less than 50,000 sq km in reasonably well protected. If we made the right decisions now, and made better use of the money available, we have the potential to support 10,000 or more tigers in the wild.”

This is a resilient species with very high reproduction rates, capable of producing large surpluses once their prey base is fully protected. But their relationship with their habitat is still not scientifically understood, Karanth adds. Instead, we give them nicknames that infantilise and seek to humanise them. We hesitate to remove one from a habitat even when such a move could serve a greater good.

“We have to make more rational choices,” Karanth says. “Not hanker for a way to travel back to an imaginary golden age of dense human populations in perfect harmony with nature. Not try to regress; that approach will have no takers. Instead, wisely use some of what we have, and use it better.”

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    Dipanjan Sinha is principal correspondent, weekend features in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for seven years now and worked on the desk, news and features teams

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