She's Saving Tigers and Shaking Things Up In Science
Sarika Khanwilkar Launches a Nonprofit While Working on Her PhD at Columbia
Devin: What do you see as your superpower?
Sarika: I think my superpower is being a scientist but thinking beyond that label as a box.
Sarika Khanwilkar is an evolutionary biologist working on her Ph.D. at Columbia University. Ph.D. students are almost all overworked. It is a high-stress job, much more so than the student life we experience in undergraduate studies.
Starting a Nonprofit
That pressure hasn’t stopped her from starting a nonprofit, Wild Tiger, to save the endangered cats in India.
Sarika launched her nonprofit after starting research for graduate school in India. Sarika’s father was born in India and had taken her to visit the country before. Her first trip as a professional gave her a new perspective.
“I went to rural India, and I saw tigers. But I also, most importantly, saw how people are living with tigers and the challenges that come along with that,” she says.
The challenges of living among tigers lead too frequently to tragedy.
“Those challenges had been missing from a lot of the narrative that we in the United States have about tiger conservation,” Sarika says.
She also saw success. “What I was seeing on the ground when I went there was impactful work happening by locally-led small organizations.” Adding, “These locally-run organizations were doing amazing, amazing work with communities, with tigers, with wildlife.”
Wild Tiger was Sarika’s way of helping these on-the-ground nonprofits fund their work. In addition to raising funds, she tries to help when her research takes her back to India. She provides scientific support, helps in data collection, data analysis and guidance on whether interventions are working.
Stopping Human-Wildlife Conflict
In India, Sarika sees conflict less as an academic problem to be researched but as a crisis that requires immediate resources to end.
“I visited this man whose wife had died, who had been mauled by a tiger while out collecting firewood,” she says, citing just one example of the human-tiger challenges Indians face.
Still, Sarika approaches her work as a scientist. “We were finding that there were certain livelihood patterns, you could say, such as collecting firewood, which increases the risk of people getting attacked by tigers or leopards.”
“It is mostly women and children who are burdened with collecting firewood and cooking at home,” she says. They are the ones at risk of encountering a tiger.
The motivation for collecting firewood complicates the issues with addressing this pattern. It is used primarily as a cooking fuel, meaning that to tell them to stop would be as absurd as telling the tiger not to eat.
The second pattern of human-tiger conflict involves toileting, or more correctly, defecating without the benefit of a toilet. If there isn’t a clean, accessible toilet in your home or village, finding a quiet place in the forest is your best bet.
Bending over to collect firewood and crouching to do your business put you in a similar position—eye-level to a hungry tiger who now may see you as prey.
“Tiger conservation is not just about saving tigers,” Sarika concludes. “It’s just not easy to live with tigers.”
“One of the reasons tigers have been able to survive in India so long is because people have had a great tolerance for this conflict,” she says. “Part of that comes from the religious symbolism of animals and the tiger. The tiger is a God.”
Sarika shared some of the work that the organizations her Wild Tiger nonprofit supports.
Tiger Research and Conservation Trust has been working on several aspects, including educating people on avoiding interaction with tigers and monitoring village areas for tiger movements. Critically, the organization has been helping people access liquid propane as an alternative cooking fuel.
Loss Wilderness Foundations works closely with indigenous communities to create livelihoods. They help villagers make and sell jewelry and serve as tour guides in the forest.
In all this work, Sarika has been burnishing her superpower, an ability to think outside the box as a scientist.
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How to Develop Thinking Outside the Box As a Scientist As a Superpower
Sarika wants to shake things up in science.
The public has defined scientists, she says, as being white men who publish in peer-reviewed journals. To make matters worse, she feels the public distrusts science. “As a scientist, that’s kind of a bummer.”
She sees an opportunity for some changes. “I think having scientists communicate directly with the public and be more of public figures and public leaders in life, in general, would be would be nice.”
She wants to see science contextualized and realized more fully:
What I'm really passionate about is doing better science. What I mean by that is not only allowing more diverse perspectives to do science, that is to study and to pursue it as a career and actually become scientists but also like when we're doing science, I think we need to be a lot more cognizant of how, we're impacting the people that we're collecting data on or the people who own the land where we are collecting data—and then the impact of our data.
When scientists’ work has policy implications, she’d like to see scientists take a more prominent role in advocating for the implied policy changes. Otherwise, she says, “they’re just empty words on paper.”
She is hopeful that change can happen. She notes that despite public distrust of science, scientists are well regarded. “There’s a general trust overall of a person who is a scientist.”
She has two specific points she hopes the scientific world will implement further.
First, she encourages scientists to commit to a field and stay with it, allowing them time to advocate for and see change realized within their focus areas.
Second, she wants to see scientists pause before jumping into fieldwork to take time to get to know the people in the impacted communities. “Making conversations and genuine collaboration a part of every work would be, I think, really great.”
Even if you are not a scientist, there is value in committing to your work and looking for policies that leaders can implement to support your cause and then advocating for those policies. This approach can become a superpower you to use for good.