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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tiger wallah wins Getty Award

[The radio-collaring of the leopard "Buddy McKay"; Ullas Karanth (center) with veterinarian K.A.Nanjappa (left) and range warden K.M.Chinnappa (right). Nagarahole National Park, Feb. 13, 1990]

We're celebrating the achievements of a good friend this week. K. Ullas Karanth was just named the 2007 winner of the J. Paul Getty Award for Conservation Leadership. The highly esteemed award is WWF-US's way of recognizing outstanding contributions to international wildlife conservation.

Mel Sunquist and I witnessed Ullas's development as a conservation biologist for nearly three decades. Since Ullas's accomplishments have already been enumerated (here), we'll talk a bit about the early days and events that led to his success.

Ullas (pronounced Oo-las) was an engineer-turned-farmer when we first crossed paths with him at the centennial anniversary of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1983. Before switching to the farmer's life, he worked as a planning and industrial engineer for a motor company, and as a sales engineer of agricultural machinery. But job satisfaction he didn't have. His real interest was India's wildlife.

He began to drift more and more to his avocation, and soon he was attending international symposia and conferences in India, where he quickly developed a reputation for asking embarrassing questions.

He was a nitpicker about methodology in general, and his pet peeve was the unreliability of pugmark surveys used by the Indian government for censusing tiger populations. Project Tiger was India's new initiative at the time, and the high priests of tiger biology were a mixed bag of officials, panjandrums, and retired experts. They held forth and tilted at one another endlessly like the heroes and villains of a Bollywood epic. Ah, but how they squirmed when the young and then unknown engineer asked the hard questions. Few of them knew what he was talking about, so his plea for scientific rigor fell on deaf ears.

Ullas knew he needed "the union card". Getting advanced degrees in biology meant taking undergraduate courses while pursuing graduate studies, but it would also give him the opportunity to immerse himself in field studies.

Fortunately, in 1984, Rudy Rudran accepted Ullas for his Wildlife Conservation and Management Training Course at the National Zoo's Conservation & Research Center. This was an intensive immersion course and a chance for students to meet many specialists who were the course's staff and guest instructors.

Mel Sunquist was one of those specialists. Ullas had read his monograph on the social organization of tigers in Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park, and Mel had recently joined the faculty of the University of Florida. Mel agreed to be Ullas's advisor in the masters degree program.

The research commenced. His home in Mysore was only an hour's drive from Nagarahole National Park, which had a marvelous community of large mammals and a full complement of predators. He started collecting data on the tiger's prey using his recently acquired skills in wildlife censusing. He also established his own non-government organization -- the Centre for Wildlife Studies so his research would be eligible for funding.

Fast forward 3 years to Gainesville, Florida: Mel is making a case for Ullas's admission to grad school with a graduate assistantship. The committee votes in favor, but the chairman has a concern: "Since this student lives in India, how soon can he actually begin?

Mel's answer, "He's on the plane right now", raises a few eyebrows. The next day Ullas arrived in Gainesville with his thesis data in his carry-on baggage. He was ready for course work and writing up.

A year and a half later he had his masters degree in wildlife biology and was ready to go home. Separation from family made him decide to pursue his Ph. D. closer to home at the University of Mangalore, where Mel could still serve as his co-adviser. Residence in India also augered better for obtaining funds for radio-telemetry studies.

Before departure, he presented his results at WCS in New York. Bill Conway, then General Director, recognized promise when he saw it, and offered Ullas support for his continuing work. The result? Ullas become a WCS staff member, and with the added support his Center for Wildlife Studies expanded its programs.

There would be challenges to studying tiger and leopard ecology in India, because he proposed to do the country's first radio-telemetry study, and this was a nation where some viewed the technology as a shadowy tool of US espionage.

That wasn't all. When he was in the US, Ullas's mentor and Nagarahole's range warden, K.M. Chinnappa, had been framed on a false murder charge, arrested, humiliated, and shifted out of the park. In his absence timber and wildlife poaching had taken its toll. An exemplary warden, Chinnappa was subsequently vindicated and returned to his post, but the bitterly aggrieved offenders were waiting to even the score.

Ullas did his homework. He got approval in principle for the study from the state and central government, and he used it to bolster a detailed project proposal for funding, which he submitted to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, WCS, and the National Geographic Society. By mid-1989, all clearances were in place. Then a key official in the Ministry of Environment was transferred, and the paperwork was suspended. It delayed the capture operation by three and a half months. Any longer would have put if off another year.

Mel joined Ullas in early December, delivered the equipment, and taught the capture team the fine art of staking buffalo baits, spreading funnel fences of muslin cloth, and selecting strategically positioned trees for darting passing tigers. These were proven methods used in Mel's Nepal studies, but they were thinking on their feet, and added a new innovation--radio-collaring the bait animal. Finding the kill was a always nagging problem. With a transmitter on its neck, it could easily be located wherever the tiger dragged it.

They caught and collared 4 tigers in the first 22 days. Then three leopards joined the ranks of the collared study animals. The study was off and running, and so was Ullas, who had to radio track the 7 animals daily.

Then came reports of dead tigers from Nagarahole. By May, 1 of the 5 radio-collared tigers had died from a fight. Then four uncollared tigers were found dead. It was clear that Nagarahole had a large number of transient or landless tigers that were challenging resident tigers for space. There were professional necropsies. A broken tiger canine was extracted from the shoulder of one victim, and fighting wounds were found to be the cause of all the deaths.

Now anti-wildlife agitators seized the moment, and certain officials and members of the press joined the campaign, blaming capture and tranquilization for the deaths. Accused of trafficking tiger hides, Ullas became a target of ridicule and death threats.

But he didn't throw in the towel, and in the end, several years later, a special government committee vindicated him of any blame. He had learned an important lesson: there is more to field work than research. And in 1993 he finished his Ph. D. on the predator-prey relations of Nagarahole's large mammals.

Ullas had been thinking about tiger populations and census methods now for several years. Ever since Paul Joslin had demonstrated his own Polaroid camera traps (veterans of his Peace Corps days in Iran) Ullas realized that camera traps could be used to census tigers. Tiger stripe patterns are as good as bar codes, provided you photograph both sides of the cat.

This led to an ongoing and fruitful collaboration with Jim Nichols, and in due course they published a statistically robust census methodology for tigers and prey. Then, Ullas and colleagues examined data trends from pugmark surveys, and compared current figures across much of India's tiger range with those from the new methodology.

They showed that years of pugmark surveys were in fact a textbook example of self-fulfilled prophecy. Pugmark surveys had proven Project Tiger's success: tiger pugmarks had increased throughout the country, as expected and desired. The results were artifacts of a flawed method, and the authorities still defend the method blithely. That's why wildlife conservation is so hard; it's really about managing the Earth's most stubborn species.

So there you have a few glimpses of Ullas's transformation. The rest of the story--represented but partially in the references below--is history.

Congratulations, Ullas. You have earned it.

[wallah defined here]


Singh., L.A.K. 1999. Tracking tigers. Guidelines for estimating wild tiger populations using the pugmark technique. WWF Tiger Conservation Programme, New Delhi

Sunquist, F and M. Sunquist. 1988. Tiger Moon. University of Chicago Press.

Sunquist, M. 1981. The social organization of the tiger (Panthera tigris) in Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Smithsonian Contributions of Zoology, 336:1-98.

Karanth, K. U. 1987. Tigers in India: a critical review of field censuses. Pages 118-132 in Tigers of the World: The Biology, Biopolitics, Management and Conservation of an Endangered Species (eds. R. L. Tilson and U.S. Seal). Noyes Publications, Park Ridge, NJ.

Karanth, K.U. and M.E. Sunquist. 1992. Population structure, density and biomass of large herbivores in the tropical forests of Nagarahole, India. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 8:21-35.

Karanth, K.U. March 6, 1992. Oral History of tiger research recorded by C. Wemmer.

Karanth, K.U. and M.E. Sunquist. 1995. Prey selection by tiger leopard and dhole in tropical forests. Journal of Animal Ecology, 64:439-450.

Karanth, K.U. and J.D. Nichols. 1998. Estimation of tiger densities in India using photographic captures and recaptures. Ecology, 79: 2852-2862.

Karanth, K.U. and M.B. Stith. 1999. Prey depletion as a critical determinant of tiger population visibility. Pp 100-113 in Riding the Tiger: Tiger conservation in human dominated landscapes. (J. Seidensticker, S. Christie, and P. Jackson, eds). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK

Karanth, K.U. and M.E. Sunquist. 2000. Behavioral corrlates of predation by tiger, leopard and dhole in Nagarahole National Park, India, Journal of Zoology, 250:255-265.

Karanth, K.U., J D. Nichols, N. S. Kumar, W.A. Link, J. E. Hines, G. H. Orians. 2004. Tigers and Their Prey: Predicting Carnivore Densities from Prey Abundance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(14):4854-4858

Karanth, K.U., J.D. Nichols, J. Seidensticker, E. Dinerstein, J.L.D. Smith, C. McDougal, A.J.T. Johnsingh, R.S.Chundawat, and V. Thapar. 2003. Science deficiency in conservation practice: the monitoring of tiger populations in India. Animal Conservation, 6:141-146.

Karanth, K.U. and J.D. Nichols (editors). 2002. Monitoring tigers and their prey, a manual for researchers, managers and conservationists inn tropical Asia. Centre for Wildlife Studies, (With support from WCS, USGS and WWF-US).

Karanth, K.U. 2006. A view from the machan, how science can save the fragile predator. Orient Longman.


Mr. Smiley said...

Nice to have some positive news for a change and really nice to have a good news conservation story
Mr Smiley

ross simons said...

It's heart warming to see the long-term effects of what we all got started...

Well deserved recognition...

pam henson said...

I do think that one of CRCs great accomplishments is this international network of conservationists who cut their teeth at CRC. It must feel great to see these folks succeed.

lala said...

Camera trap is a good research technique and congratulations to all those who advocate for it; but it is not a replacement for pugmark tracking, provided pugmark tracking is done sincerely. Pumark tracking gives results of population structure (male, female, cub); their size classes on the basis of pugmarks; their spatial distribution; it is very quick; it is economic and it upholds a tribal/jungle skill practiced since generations. Let us not blame the technique, that has got refined over the years. Blame the person who has not practiced it sincerely. Dr L A K Singh

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