Save the Tiger... Indian Style

Ullas Karanth has dedicated his life to saving the tiger.

The Road from Engineer to Conservationist

In 1965, as a freshman engineering student, Karanth read an article in Life magazine entitled "My Year With the Tigers" by naturalist George Schaller. Inspired by Schaller's writing, Karanth realized there was more to these wild cats than just looking at them in zoos. "It is possible to work with tigers," he recalled telling himself and decided right then that that was what he wanted to do with his life.

It took him almost two decades to realize his dream. Following college, he worked as an engineer for a while, and then a farmer. In 1984, Karanth got his first small grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society, formed the Centre for Wildlife Studies, and entered graduate school. In 1988, George Schaller, the very man who'd inspired him, hired Karanth to the staff of the World Conservation Society and he was on his way.

Today Karanth is one of the world's leading conservation biologists credited with developing many of the methods used today for documenting wildlife populations and applying them to the study of tiger populations in India. He runs a network of field sites across southern India that monitors tigers and their prey, and works tirelessly to protect their last remaining habitats from development and human encroachment.

Touring a Corner of India with Karanth


Karanth related his story to me during the five-hour drive from Bangalore, India, where his wildlife center is headquartered, to the Nagarhole National Park (also called Rajiv Gandhi National Park), home to about 50 of the roughly one thousand tigers that remain in India. (More on tiger populations here, here, and here. See also this map of tiger preserves in India.)

Accompanying us were his daughter, Krithi Karanth (Ph.D. from Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, who works with her father and holds appointments with the wildlife center and Columbia University), and Krithi's three-year old daughter, Kela (who was along for the ride and provided much of the entertainment).

I had swung by Bangalore on my way home from a meeting in Nepal to explore opportunities for collaborative educational and research programs between the wildlife center and the Nicholas School. The trip to Nagarhole was the icing on the cake of my South Asian trip provided by my most gracious Bangalore hosts.

Our first stop at the park was the rest house, which Karanth explained is one of many park buildings built by the British in the early part of the 20th century to house members of the Imperial Forest Service which largely managed India's forests at the time.

The rest house accommodations were spartan but comfortable, and the food prepared by staff housed nearby was abundant, moderately spicy and delicious. Karanth added an extra "spice" to our dinner in the form of single malt scotch. After the sun set, we sat on the veranda nursing our drinks and discussing tigers, the state of the world, and family.

'Hunting' and 'Trapping' Wildlife With Cameras and Computers

The following day we headed out in search of wildlife, driving up and down the rocky and rolling dirt roads that crisscross the park.

Throughout our tour we encountered what Karanth calls his "camera traps"-- Muybridge-like cameras perched along the roadside equipped with night-time motion detectors that trip the shutter whenever an animal walks by and "trap" it in the form of a photograph. The tigers are then identified from the photos using pattern-recognition software. Something I had not known is that each tiger's stripes form a unique pattern, much like a fingerprint, that allows Karanth to identify individual tigers.

Using his own substantial collection of tiger photographs plus photographs sent to him by tourists and the occasional photograph of a tiger skin taken by the authorities from an apprehended poacher, Karanth has been able to track individual tigers over their entire lifetime and thousands of miles of migration. Many of his tigers do not meet a peaceful end. Some become "maneaters" and are hunted down and killed, others are killed by villagers trying to protect their cattle, and still others are taken by poachers hoping to make huge profits by selling the cats' organs for their supposed medicinal properties.

Setting Aside Land for Conserving Wildlife

Karanth's studies have led him to conclude that tigers and people cannot coexist in the same place. He therefore advocates and implements programs that relocate tribal communities living in wildlife reserves to other regions. He believes that such programs are not only good for tigers but also for the people living in relative poverty within the forest. Karanth recognizes that such people-relocation programs are generally frowned upon by the environmental community, but is undeterred. According to Karanth, only about one percent of the land in India is monitored and protected; if 99 percent is for people, he argues, one percent is not too much to ask for the tigers.

While we drove to the Nagarhole National Park, Karanth had assured me we'd see lots of wildlife, but he also warned that tigers are "stealthy and secretive" and so seeing a tiger was entirely a matter of luck. As it turned out, I did see lots of wildlife -- elephants, monkeys, spotted deer (or chital), bison-like gaur, and wild pigs (see slideshow above) -- but alas I was not lucky when it came to tigers. But I plan to return to test my luck in the near future.

Crossposted with

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 14, 2011

The original posting incorrectly stated that Karanth had received an initial grant from the World Wildlife Fund. The group was in fact the Wildlife Conservation Society.