Ullas Karanth has spent a half-century working to protect India’s endangered tigers. In an interview with Yale e360, he argues that with smart planning and the cooperation of its rural residents, the country could support five times the number of tigers it has now.
Ullas Karanth, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of the world’s premier tiger experts and a leader in the effort to restore India’s depleted tiger populations. Raised in the South India state of Karnataka, he has spent much of his professional life studying and working to bring back tigers there, starting in Nagarahole National Park in the foothills of the Western Ghats, and then across a 10,000-square-mile region of that mountain range.
Karanth’s emphasis on scientific methods has frequently brought him into conflict with India’s forest bureaucracy, particularly over its insistence on estimating tiger populations based on footprint counts. Karanth instead pioneered the use of camera traps for population estimates based on identification of individual tigers. That method belatedly became the national standard after a 2004 scandal, when Sariska Tiger Reserve, officially estimated to have 26 tigers, turned out to have none.Karanth’s willingness to report illegal logging, cattle grazing, and poaching in protected areas — and to implicate corrupt officials in the damage — has also earned him enemies. In one incident, an angry mob set a fire that destroyed his car, laboratory, and eight square miles of forest. But Karanth’s persistence has helped reestablish the tiger population in the Western Ghats and fueled his ambition to see that success extended across India and to empty tiger habitat far beyond.
Yale Environment 360: India has managed to maintain a population of about 3,000 tigers for decades. What’s the potential population in a nation that’s also home to 1.3 billion people?
Ullas Karanth: There are at least 300,000 square kilometers of the type of forest in which tigers can live, which are still not converted to agriculture and which are under state ownership, protected as state-owned forest reserves. A subset of that, maybe 10 or 15 percent, is protected as wildlife reserves. So basically if all these 300,000 square kilometers were reasonably well protected and the prey base is brought up, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.
e360: Is there any chance that that will happen?
Karanth: I don’t see why not. It’s essentially a function of building back the prey base, because the forest cover is there. Some of the better-protected areas like Nagarahole and Bandipur national parks, where I worked, have densities of 10 to 15 tigers per 100 square kilometers. Even if we averaged only 5 tigers per 100 square kilometers in that 300,000 square kilometers, you’re talking about 15,000 tigers…