By Taylor Hornney
Class of 2016
SPOKANE, Wash. – Sarika Ann Khanwilkar is combining her bachelor’s degree in biology from Gonzaga University with a desire to make a difference in the world. After conducting conservation research in North America, South America and Asia, the 23-year-old founded the nonprofit organization Wild Tiger a year ago to help save India’s Bengal tigers.
“When I saw my first tiger in the wild in India, I was in pure awe that this big cat existed within the most densely populated country on earth,” says Khanwilkar, a 2014 GU alumna.
“Every single time I see a tiger, this overwhelming sense of gratitude takes over. As my interest in wildlife conservation grew, so did my desire to know India’s culture because growing up in America, I felt disconnected from the half of me that is Indian. I wanted to do something to conserve the last of India’s wild and focusing on the apex predator and iconic symbol, the Bengal tiger, is my way of doing so. Working to save the Bengal tiger is my way of connecting with my heritage.”
While she works full time for the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in Wyoming, Khanwilkar dedicates her free time to Wild Tiger. She travels to India for a few months each year. It’s in India where she finds her gratitude most profound. The country is home to more than half of the world’s wild tigers.
India’s wild tiger population, which had declined dramatically due to habitat destruction and poaching, improved in the latest survey. The “Status of Tigers in India, 2014” report from India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority shows India’s wild tiger population increased to 2,226 in 2014 from 1,706 in 2010 (and 1,411 in 2006). The report attributes the growth primarily to better management and improved protection.
Nevertheless, Khanwilkar notes the wild tiger remains critically endangered, threatened by factors including habitat loss, depletion of prey, and illegal poaching. Protection of India’s Bengal tiger also means safeguarding its ecosystem and maintaining the existing diversity of wildlife, she says.
“Now is a critical time for tigers living in India, an overcrowded country with increasing economic development,” Khanwilkar says. “I believe that using science and data in a humanistic approach is the best way to convince governments and people that saving the tiger is beneficial, before it’s too late.”
The organization’s goal is simple: increase the Bengal tiger population and preserve its habitat. Wild Tiger hopes to do this by increasing international awareness, tourism and creating best practices so people and the iconic tigers can coexist.
Wild Tiger oversees four major programs to support innovative education and science-based conservation. The Wild Tiger Ambassador project offers opportunities for people to creatively promote conservation. Experience Wild India, an ecotourism initiative, provides immersive wildlife and cultural trips involving local communities to support development of India’s tiger reserves and boost the economic value of the ecosystem and tiger habitat.
The 2017 Expedition program is a scientific investigation and educational outreach involving social scientists, biologists, wildlife managers, conservationists, and media that will explore the socioeconomics of communities living in the buffer areas of tiger reserves. The fourth program, Partnerships for Wildlife, fosters relationships with organizations to enhance tiger conservation efforts in India that involves partners including Tiger Research and Conservation Trust.
With the help of conservation experts Poonam and Harshawardhan Dhanwatey – and her biology experience with research grants – Khanwilkar has achieved her goal of creating a successful nonprofit organization.
She credits Gonzaga with inspiring her values of social and environmental justice, which underscore her efforts on behalf of tigers. The work, she said, cannot be accomplished without working for and with others.
“Gonzaga empowered me to fight for justice in the world, which I do through Wild Tiger,” Khanwilkar said.