'I was interested in saving the tiger. So I created enemies'

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By Wildlife scientist K. Ullas Karanth called the government-used pugmark system of counting tigers unscientific for years - and was often derided. He is now being hailed. Varuna Verma meets India's true tiger man
  • Published 24.02.08

K. Ullas Karanth could easily have broken into an “I-told-you-so” speech. And no one would have called the wildlife scientist smug. Twenty five years ago, Karanth presented a paper at a wildlife conference in Kerala that called the government-used pugmark system of counting tigers unscientific and incorrect. “The bureaucrats were very upset with the paper and it was promptly buried,” recalls Karanth, senior conservation scientist at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and director, WCS India Program, Bangalore.

But that didn’t deter the tiger expert. “I have been telling the forest department to opt for a sampling system to count tigers. But I always met with bureaucratic red tape,” says Karanth.

Until the Sariska fiasco happened five years ago. “The farce blew up in the face of the government, when its claim of 26 tigers in the forest reserve was found completely false. There were no tigers left in Sariska,” says Karanth.

The public relations disaster forced the government to give up the pugmark system of counting the big cat and opt for Karanth’s method.

For the first time — 35 years after Project Tiger was set up — it initiated a scientific system to gauge the number of tigers. His method revised the figures of India’s tiger population to 1,411 — less than half of what was shown in the last census.

And Karanth finds that he is suddenly in the news. The man who cried himself hoarse for years — and was often derided as somebody who had nothing to do with the wildlife establishment — is being hailed by the same system that refused to take him seriously. There are, of course, some who are still sceptical. Government conservationists in Bengal and Orissa are among those who have questioned his figures. To most others, however, Karanth is king.

He may stand vindicated, but he doesn’t thump his back. Instead, the sober-looking, salt-and-pepper haired wildlife scientist — who won the J. Paul Getty Award for Conservation Leadership last year — prefers to think beyond numbers. “Whatever the numbers, the main issue is that despite good habitats in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, tigers are getting wiped out,” he says.

Karanth is working on his laptop in a quiet conference room at Bangalore’s WCS office. Once in a while, his Blackberry phone rings softly and he excuses himself to take the call. He may have the technological comforts of urban life, but he says he feels out of place in the city. “I go to the jungles for one week every month to recharge my batteries,” he says.

He spent a lot more days in the wild during his salad days — much to his speech pathologist wife’s chagrin. He had made Nagarhole, a wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, his second home. “I would go home to Mysore only on weekends,” he says. The rest of the time, he fought for the cause of the big cat. He filed complaints against cattle grazing and poaching in the forests and even got a road that ran through Nagarhole closed.

Life would have been smooth for Karanth had he been a regular scientist — who conducted research and left it on paper. But the 60-year-old conservationist — who has written 60 research papers and four books on the big cat — went a step ahead. “I was interested in changing ground reality to save the tiger and its habitat. So I created enemies,” he says.

Karanth was the first wildlife scientist in India to do radio tracking of tigers. One tiger in Nagarhole died six months after it was tranquilised and made to wear a collar. “This sparked a rumour that the collars were killing the tigers,” remembers Karanth. The issue was blown up. A question was raised in the Karnataka Assembly, Karanth’s research was shut down and he was accused of exporting tiger skin.

“The high court finally absolved me of all charges,” he says.

A year later, a poacher was found dead in the jungles of Nagarhole.

Again, Karanth’s name came up in the list of suspects. “My car, laboratory and 20 sq. km of forests were burnt by a local mob,” recalls the scientist.

A less passionate tiger lover would have given up. But Karanth was ready to fight for the carnivore that had fascinated him since his teenage days. “I often felt depressed but I didn’t give up my work,” he says. He stuck on, and went on to propagate a system of sampling — using cameras to track tigers in a certain area and then using statistical techniques to estimate their numbers. But it took him 25 years to get the government to listen.

The fact that the pugmark system of counting tigers survived for 40 years in India shows there is no culture of science in the bureaucracy, says Karanth. The system prescribes counting each tiger by its tracks. “Scientifically, you can’t do such a census,” says the scientist.

He would know. As a child, Karanth — the son of Kannada writer K. Shivarama Karanth — grew up in the lap of wildlife, in Pittur, a small west Karnataka town located on the fringes of the Western Ghats. “I would wander alone into the forests looking for wildlife,” he says.

And almost always, the animal lover came away depressed. “Hunting was rampant. People would parade the leopards, tigers and wild boars they killed,” says Karanth.

Back then, Karanth couldn’t turn his passion for wildlife into his profession. “There was no career in wildlife. All middle class boys either became doctors or engineers,” he says. Karanth reluctantly picked engineering. But even during his college days — at the National Institute of Technology, Suratkal — the call of the wild continued to lure. “I would bunk classes and take off to the Nagarhole, Bhadra and Kudremukh sanctuaries on my motorcycle,” he says.

When Karanth began working in Bangalore — as an engineer at Mico — he soon found that city life didn’t suit him. “Working in the city didn’t give me an opportunity to participate in wildlife conservation,” says Karanth. So he quit his job, bought land north of Nagarhole and started farming.

For the next decade, farming kept Karanth close to nature. It also changed his romantic, urban notions that rural people share a symbiotic relation with the forests. “Cattle grazing, hunting and wood cutting were ruining the forests,” he says.

Karanth became an amateur conservationist and began fighting for the right to protect forest cover. “There’s just three per cent of forest cover left in India. Encroaching into it is not going to solve the country’s problem of accommodating its population,” he says.

From amateur, Karanth turned into a professional wildlife scientist after obtaining a masters degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Florida in 1988. The same year, he joined the WCS’s India chapter. With 20 years of research on the big cat, Karanth has conducted the longest running tiger project in the world. His work has revolved around the Nagarhole, Bandipur and Bhadra wildlife sanctuaries, where, Karanth says, the tiger population has been bouncing back in the last five years. “When I was growing up, the tiger had almost vanished from these parts,” says Karanth.

With the latest tiger census throwing up bleak figures, wildlife experts are writing obituaries for the Indian big cat. But Karanth feels there’s no need to panic. “Tigers will remain in the 23rd century if the right work is done,” he says. The carnivore can be saved, says Karanth, if issues such as disappearing prey species, tiger hunting, conflict with man and unplanned industrial growth are addressed head on.

Karanth plans to turn his Nagarhole tiger project — where rehabilitating the population, protecting the forest cover and strictly cracking down on poaching helped in saving the tiger — into a model which can be replicated in other habitats.

People living in the Nagarhole reserve are currently being rehabilitated and the tiger expert — who advised author R.K. Narayan when he was writing The Tiger of Malgudi — is preparing to make another trip to his favourite forests. “My job and hobby are the same. My wife complains there is no difference between my weekdays and weekends,” says Karanth.

Not that the tiger is complaining.