Science of Conservation

Fulbright-Nehru Fellow Uma Ramakrishnan works to conserve the tiger population in India using population genetics.

By Natasa Milas

March 2019

Science of Conservation

Photograph courtesy Uma Ramakrishnan

Uma Ramakrishnan is an assistant professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bengaluru. Her work focuses on population genetics and the evolutionary history of mammals. She is one of India’s leading scientists endeavoring to preserve the tiger population in the subcontinent.

Data from her work has been used for creating and improving plans for conservation of tigers in a rapidly-urbanizing India. In 2013, Ramakrishnan and her team’s data was used as evidence in the Supreme Court to petition for an underpass for the widened National Highway 7, to enable tiger connectivity between Kanha and Pench tiger reserves.

Ramakrishnan was a 2015-2016 Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Fellow at Stanford University, California. She is the first Indian to win the Parker/Gentry Award, administered by The Field Museum in Chicago, in recognition of her work using genetic data from tigers to inform conservation efforts.

Excerpts from an interview.

How did you become interested in population genetics?

I was always interested in the natural world and in understanding animal behavior. I was lucky to grow up on the Indian Institute of Science campus in Bengaluru. My curiosity as a child always extended beyond simply observing the natural world. I asked myself: Why do animals behave the way they do? What is actually transpiring in these animal populations? Early on, I realized that there was a hidden layer of information that we were not considering—DNA and genetic variation.

After high school, I accompanied my family to Princeton University [New Jersey], where my father was on a sabbatical. At Princeton, I audited a variety of courses and spent time in a molecular ecology lab. I learnt that I could gain deep insights into biology by understanding this hidden information layer. I knew then that I wanted to use a genetics lens to study wildlife populations.

After my studies, I was very lucky to get a job at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, which is part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bengaluru, and jumped into this empowering environment. I was their first hire in the ecology and evolution area. Soon after I joined, I got a call from [conservation zoologist and tiger expert] Ullas Karanth, asking if I was interested in working on tigers and their genetics. The rest, as they say, is history. My journey over the last 15 years or so at NCBS, understanding tigers and other Indian biodiversity, has been incredibly exciting.

Uma Ramakrishnan and her student, Kaushal Patel, collect tiger hair samples. Photograph courtesy Uma Ramakrishnan

How is your work helping to preserve the tiger population in India?

The future of tigers is really in our hands. Thanks to the efforts of the Government of India, several tiger populations have recovered. The viability and future survival of these populations will be contingent on our ability to maintain connectivity between them.

I am really proud that our work in 2013 was used as evidence in the Supreme Court to petition for an underpass on the widened National Highway 7 to enable tiger connectivity between Kanha and Pench tiger reserves. We only did the science, many individuals and NGOs made this science impactful in that context. But, I think, the fact that the science and data existed was important.

I hope our research has and will continue to fill the gap between science, management and policy. We are currently working on an isolated population of tigers in Rajasthan, and I hope our research insights will help plan what may be the best way to ensure long-term survival of this population.

In 2015-2016 you went to Stanford University, California, as a Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Fellow. How does that experience help your current work in India?

This was a really great opportunity for me. I had been at NCBS for nine years or so, had addressed many research questions here in India, and had become absorbed in the academic trajectory of tenure, students, grants and institutional activities. A sabbatical sounded great. I was outside my comfort zone at Stanford University, the academic mecca for population genetics. Additionally, Stanford is nestled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where many conservation NGOs and start-up companies at the forefront of new genomic technologies are based.

The amazing thing about being outside your comfort zone is that it is empowering. With colleagues at Stanford, we turned what has typically been a challenge for conservation genetics—non-invasive or poor-quality DNA samples—into a strength. We asked whether we could develop cheap, reliable and fast methods that used novel genomic technologies to work on poor-quality samples. We successfully developed and tested these methods, between the United States and India, on tigers and on a marine species, queen conch.

While at Stanford, my colleagues and I set up the Program for Conservation Genomics. Our goal was to provide simple-to-use genetic approaches to on-ground conservationists. We are still working together to make this a reality. Our work is in the peer review process, but I hope it will be out soon, and will provide a way to empower on-ground conservationists.

What are some of the biggest challenges in your work?

Permissions to work in protected areas are always very challenging. Then, there are the things you really have no influence over. It rains and, well, your samples collected over the next few days are unlikely to have DNA or yield results. Sometimes, we work with large teams or in areas which are very difficult (for example, high elevation), inaccessible or not very politically stable.

What are your future research plans?

I would really like to build partnerships with other tiger researchers across Asia. The methods we developed while at Stanford are going to be generalizable across tiger range countries. One of the goals is that everyone across the world can use a common platform for analyses, so that the data is comparable. Critical to this effort, however, is that each country builds an ecosystem to generate and analyze their genetic data on tigers locally.

We are working hard to understand the impacts of inbreeding or mating between relatives on small and isolated tiger populations. This is a big ask for a species like tiger, but I am hoping the detailed work we are doing could shed some light on this problem, which is sure to become more common with time.

There’s lots of exciting research to do. I hope that our research can contribute in whatever small way to reverse biodiversity loss.

Natasa Milas is a freelance journalist based in New York City.


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