- The Field Museum in Chicago has awarded the 2016 Parker/Gentry award to Uma Ramakrishnan, an Indian conservation geneticist who has worked extensively on the population genetics, evolutionary history and conservation of tigers and other mammals in India.
- Ramakrishnan is the first Indian to receive the award.
- Ramakrishnan’s team has developed genetic tools to help count tigers, understand connectivity between tiger populations and trace origins of black market tiger parts.
The Field Museum in Chicago has awarded the 2016 Parker/Gentry award to Uma Ramakrishnan, an Indian conservation geneticist who has worked extensively on population genetics, evolutionary history and conservation of tigers and other mammals in India.
Ramakrishnan is the first Indian to receive the award.
Each year, the Parker/Gentry Award is given to “an outstanding individual, team or organization in the field of conservation biology whose efforts have had a significant impact on preserving the world’s natural heritage and whose actions and approach can serve as a model to others.” Merlijn van Weerd, a crocodile conservationist who works with the critically endangered Philippine crocodile, received the award last year. In 2014, Rhett Butler, founder of mongabay.com, won the prize.
“Uma is an original thinker and innovator,” tiger expert Ullas Karanth, who is the Director for Science Asia at Wildlife Conservation Society, told Mongabay. “I consider her India’s top conservation geneticist, and one of the best in the world.”
Ramakrishnan is currently an Associate Professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, India. Among her achievements is the development of genetic tools that can help identify individual tigers from their scat or feces.
Ramakrishnan calls this development “huge”. “Without the constraints of needing invasive samples like blood or tissues, sample collection from a far wider area became much simpler,” she said in a statement.
Using these genetic tools, Ramakrishnan’s team found that India’s tigers have about 60 to 70 percent of the genetic variation found in the entire species, making India an important place for tiger conservation.
Ramakrishnan has also used these tools to peer into the genetic past of tigers in India. By comparing DNA from 200-year old tiger skins from the British Museum with that of tigers that remain today, her team has shown that modern-day tigers in India are mostly inbred, with very little genetic variation. Her work has also demonstrated that much of India’s tigers today live in small, isolated populations, with little or no connectivity.
“Uma’s pioneering genetic research has helped tiger conservation in a number of ways, from improving our ability to count tigers, to documenting connectivity (or lack thereof) among protected areas, to tracing the origins of confiscated black market tiger parts,” John Goodrich, Senior Director of Tiger Program-Panthera, told Mongabay. “This has improved our ability to track tiger numbers and evaluate conservation interventions, prevent isolation of key tiger reserves, and track tiger trade.”
While Ramakrishnan focuses on tigers, she also uses her expertise to understand drivers of genetic variations in birds, bats, and various other species.
Winning the award is an honor, Ramakrishnan told Mongabay.
“It’s wonderful that our approach of using genetic data is viewed now as important to conservation,” she said. “Over the next few years I hope that we will be able to integrate genomic technology into our methods, and move towards globally applicable, cheap and fast tools in conservation genetics of tigers. I hope that we will be able to interface with policy and translate our science into action that will secure the future of tigers.”