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Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan wins the Parker/Gentry Award for 2016

The National Centre for Biological Sciences congratulates Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan on winning the Parker/Gentry award for 2016!

Every year, the Parker/Gentry Award honours an individual, team or organisation for their outstanding efforts in the field of conservation biology. The Award celebrates the winners' contributions towards preserving the world's natural heritage, and highlights their actions and approaches as a model to others. The winners of the Parker/Gentry Award also receive wide publicity and broad distribution of their scientific work and results in addition to a generous gift from an anonymous donor that is presented by The Field Museum.

Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan, the winner of the Parker/Gentry Award for 2016 is currently an Associate Professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, India. As a molecular ecologist she works on the population genetics and conservation of mammals with a special focus on tigers. Over the course of her PhD and post-doctoral studies, Dr. Ramakrishnan has worked on a variety of systems - whales, baboons, ancient DNA from small mammals, and click-speaking groups of African people - all under the common theme of population genetics. In this interview, she talks about her work, deep concerns for India's tigers and biodiversity, and what winning the Parker/Gentry Award means to her.

Tell us about your work on the population biology of tigers and how you think it can help in conservation?

Broadly, I would describe my work as falling within the field of conservation genetics. My team of researchers use DNA sequences and information on genetic variation to address questions about tiger populations. Within this framework, our research can be divided into two parts - conservation genomics, and landscape genetics. Our work on conservation genomics broadly addresses the issues of preservation and viability of tiger populations, whereas landscape genetics looks at how landscape patterns have and are affecting tiger populations.

My group's first piece of work on tigers was to develop and use genetic tools to quantify the the number of tigers at the Bandipur National Park. We developed a method to genetically identify individual tigers based on fecal samples - this was a huge development for us. Without the constraints of needing invasive samples like blood or tissues, sample collection from a far wider area became much simpler. Using our genetics-based tools, we were also able to establish that for tigers, 60-70% of the genetic variation in the whole species was actually within the Indian subcontinent. This was a really important insight since it now points to India as a place where tigers must really be conserved. India not only has ~60% of the world's tiger population, but around 60% of the genetic variation - the evolutionary potential of the species in some sense - is also here.

We have also worked on comparing the demographics of tiger populations in the past with those in the present. Using 200-year old tiger skins from the British museum, we sampled the 'genetic past' of tigers from areas where they are no more found in India. When we compared the past genetic variance to the current estimates, we find that almost nothing of the past remains today. More importantly, we also found signatures that some of the past populations have now become fragmented - there has been a loss in connectivity between tiger populations in the last 200 years.

In India, there are very few protected areas that have tiger populations larger than 50 individuals. The median size of a tiger population in India is 19 - these are tiny populations, which without connectivity, will not be viable. Inbreeding, inability to find mates and shrinking resources can wipe out these populations if no efforts are made towards mitigating their current situation. Keeping this in mind, along with the fact that India is rapidly urbanising, we wanted to understand how tiger connectivity is likely to be affected in the future. Therefore, our latest set of studies have focussed on landscape genetics, which have produced very interesting results that are in the process of being published.

As part of these landscape genetics studies, our intention was to investigate characteristics of the landscape that impact tiger movement and connectivity patterns today. For example, if we know that between 2 protected areas, there is a certain amount of forest, certain stretches of roads and some area of cities and towns, we can predict which landscape elements are bad or good for tiger movement. This work informs us that the main detriments to tiger movement are high density urban settlements and high traffic roads, both of which are likely to increase tremendously in the future due to the increasing development in India. Now, we hope that by modelling various scenarios based on this study, we may actually help in mitigating the effects of urbanisation on tiger populations.

"What is the point of all this work?", one could ask. All this data makes for a great story to narrate - but at the end of the day, why do we need to know all this? We must remember that we, humans, are the reason why tigers are reduced to occupying just 7% of the lands over which they once roamed. So I believe that it is our responsibility to work on saving this species, and I also believe that conservation and landscape genetic studies will provide important insights in this endeavour.

What got you interested in this field and what led you to begin your work on tigers?

I have always been fascinated by the natural world and population genetics. I found the idea of playing 'detective' using molecular tools to see patterns and answer questions about biological systems extremely appealing. I think the lure of getting closer and closer to the truth with better and more sophisticated scientific tools drove me to take up the field of conservation genetics.

As to how I began my work on tigers, it began with a paper on a global study of tiger populations that I had read just before I came to India after my post-doctoral studies. The study seemed to suggest that Indian tigers had low genetic variation in the context of the whole species. This seemed very odd, because nearly 60% of the world's tiger population is in India. So I jumped at the chance to work on tigers when Dr. Ullas Karanth approached me, wanting to work on the population genetics of tigers using genetic tools.

We were really lucky that during our study in Bandipur National Park, Dr. Ullas and his team were also doing camera-trap and photograph based population estimates at the same time. So, we had a genetics and camera-trap based estimate of population size for the same population. A comparison showed that the genetics and the camera-trap based estimates were concordant, giving us tremendous confidence in our methodologies. It was amazing to work with Dr. Ullas and his team - their ecological insights on tigers provided a great deal of help in our genetic studies.

With the methods we developed over the course of this work, we eventually were able to prove that for tigers, 60-70% of the genetic variation in the whole species was actually in the Indian subcontinent. A result that was very different from the one reported by the global study on tigers that initially piqued my interest.

Based on your group's work, what do you think are the most pressing issues in tiger conservation in India?

I believe that the most pressing issue in tiger conservation as of now is the lack of connectivity between existing tiger populations. We need to find a balance between maintaining India's biodiversity along with its development initiatives. We cannot obviously halt development, but I believe we can make informed choices on urbanisation. We could, through our studies, evaluate whether preserving a particular corridor and urbanising other areas could maintain connectivity between tiger populations. Another important issue that is likely to come up in the future is human-tiger conflict. The last two years have seen many instances of tigers leaving protected areas, and we are likely to require technology mediated monitoring to address this issue.

Poaching is also a big concern for tiger conservation. Trade in wildlife is known to be the third largest illegal trade globally, and a lot of tiger poaching supplies this business. We have done some work on tracing poached leopard parts, and are currently exploring potential collaborations for more work on geographical assignment of confiscated tiger parts in the future.

Apart from these concerns, I also feel that tiger conservation needs to be addressed through a more integrative approach globally. Right now, conservation issues are tackled at very local, single population levels. To make tiger conservation a success, I believe we need to start thinking of the species as a whole and strive for synthesis across all the countries where tigers are indigenous.

What is the most difficult part of your studies on tiger genetics?

The laboratory-based work is, I think one of the hardest aspects of the work my group does. Success rates for DNA analyses with fecal samples are really low because the DNA obtained from such samples are degraded, and each result must be replicated several times before it is confirmed. We are now in the process of trying to develop cutting-edge genomic methods to get around this problem.

Although genetic tools and genomic methods have improved by leaps and bounds, especially in the last five years or so, I sometimes still feel science is moving much too slowly for conservation measures. I hope the new methods being developed will be quicker and cheaper, allowing us to learn about tigers much faster and that someday in the near future, implications on conservation suggested by science and technology will be critically involved in policy decisions.

What keeps you going despite the hurdles you face in your field?

The first thing that keeps me going is sheer curiosity; I always want to know what particular patterns in population data mean, and will continue to strive to learn more and develop better methods for my work. For example, I am currently focussing on trying to develop better methods for genomics work using fecal samples. If we have the power to sequence whole genomes of extinct species from fossils, I am sure we can develop the techniques to generate genomic data from the degraded tiger DNA in fecal samples, right in the field! It sounds like a futuristic story, but if we can develop a portable sequencer that can quickly provide genetic data from a tiny sample, just think of the possibilities!

I also find this work very rewarding. Tigers are very charismatic, and I think we all agree we cannot afford to let them go extinct. This makes people interested and curious about our results regarding these animals. Finally, I really want to integrate science with conservation policy. I was once called to present some of my work on tiger connectivity for an assessment of coal mines near Satpura National Park. The kinds of questions asked by the team of bureaucrats whom I interacted with at that time made me realise how little we actually knew about tiger movements. "Can we expect tigers to travel through this route or that route?" I could not answer the question then with the tools I had. However, I hope that with further work, we will actually be able to assess potential impacts of planned development activities on tigers, and that policies and decisions will be informed by solid scientific data.

You are the first Indian to have won the Parker/Gentry award. What does winning this award mean for you, and how do you think it will help in your future endeavours?

Of course it feels very good to have won this award - the fact that people appreciate my efforts is a real boost. Winning the Award has not only been a great encouragement for me, I also feel that it is a great triumph for my students and research associates. My winning this award is in great part due to their efforts and their work - to see that their work has been recognised is very important to me.

Apart from being the first Indian to win the Parker/Gentry Award, I also feel special about winning this Award as an academic scientist. In my mind, it reinforces my conviction that science can truly play a central role in conservation efforts in the future. I am very hopeful that the Award will help change the way conservation is being thought of for the future - as a global effort that cuts across political boundaries and is centred on a firm observational, scientific and technological basis.

Since one of my future goals is to work across boundaries in international collaborations to build a global team for biodiversity conservation, I am hoping that the recognition this Award will generate for my work will help me forge new ties. I would also like to approach the Indian government with our research on landscape genetics to help with crafting land-usage policies - it would be really great if I could gain some leverage through this Award to create a link with policy makers.

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