Q&A with Dr. Kalli Doubleday: Studying Tiger Reintroductions in India

Dr. Kalli Doubleday and local women in Rajasthan, India. Photo © Kalli Doubleday.

I am thrilled to be able to bring you this Q&A with Dr. Kalli Doubleday.

Dr. Doubleday is a geographer who recently earned her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation focused on the social dynamics surrounding tiger reintroductions in Sariska Tiger Reserve: a well-known protected area in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

In 2005, Sariska infamously lost all of its tigers – largely as a result of poaching (Check, 2006; Doubleday, 2018). Tigers were later reintroduced to Sariska, and by 2017 fourteen of these magnificent cats inhabited the reserve. Dr. Doubleday has been studying local people’s responses to these reintroductions; including how villagers and the new tigers are negotiating boundaries.

In addition to her PhD research, Dr. Doubleday has been working as an animal rescuer in Rajasthan and helping female graduate students prepare for field work in male-dominated environments. She graciously agreed to participate in a Q&A post for this blog, and her answers are below.

Deer and a peacock in Rajasthan. Image © Kalli Doubleday.

In a few sentences, what is your research about?

My research projects address one of the ultimate conservation questions of the 21st century: how are apex predators to remain on planet Earth into the future? Primarily utilizing qualitative methods like interviews and focus groups, my work has centered on understanding the human side of big cat conservation issues. As it stands, any conservation aim or project has to consider the human element as being just as important as habitat and genetics. That’s where my work and other conservation social science comes in.

How did you end up working in Rajasthan?

I knew I wanted to work on human-tiger interactions from the start. After almost 200 emails to potential research collaborators I finally got a “yes,” from Clay Nielsen: a wildlife ecologist working on several big cat projects. After months of planning, our intended project fell through. I therefore got on Facebook to connect with local wildlife photographers and animal rescuers: anyone with a network and local knowledge willing to talk and possibly point me in the right direction (I was literally going to get off a plane and just start walking).

The next thing I knew I was less than 2 hours off a plane in Rajasthan and on the back of a dirt bike with wildlife rescuer Chinmay Massey.

Chinmay and I had talked at length about all types of conservation issues in India, including my growing interest in rewilding historical tiger landscapes. His interest in this topic and his network at Sariska Tiger Reserve (Sariska) led me to focus my dissertation there. I helped Chinmay with wildlife rescues in the early mornings and evenings and he helped me, along with other research assistants, to conduct focus groups and interviews in Sariska on the tiger reintroduction in 2008-2009.

A shot of the landscape near Sariska Tiger Reserve. Photo © Kalli Doubleday.

What insights have you gained from your time in Rajasthan?

The big take away from my dissertation is a call to all conservation projects to consider the hidden costs of conservation management and laws. While human sacrifice (ranging from inconveniences to sacrificing homes) is necessary for conserving apex predators, without understanding the hidden costs that drive intolerance conservationists cannot hope to sustain long-term predator populations.

Through 52 focus groups at Sariska, my dissertation uncovers links between tiger reintroduction, social practices, and increased risk of domestic abuse against women – which affects tolerance in the long term. Tracing these links allows for better reintroduction plans, social marketing, education, and advocacy for human rights that in the end strengthen tiger conservation.

Dr. Doubleday speaking with local women in Rajasthan. Photo © Kalli Doubleday.

What are some of the challenges women face in the field that men do not usually have to deal with?

One of my greatest lessons that came from working with an all-male research team my first two field seasons in Rajasthan is establishing control of the project aims and objects from the start.

Working in a patriarchal society, my position as the team leader and strategist was often challenged. For instance, I made concessions to a research assistant in small decisions – such as where to get gas and how to record the costs. By the second year that assistant had worked out a way to secretly benefit from his power in that decision making. I then had to confront the assistant and take away that power to protect the integrity of the project.

In another example, during the first field season I was continually requested to wear a certain type of clothing by a research assistant. I realized at the end of the season that this was a way to control me and brand me as submissive to that assistant. I eventually had to work against that perception and reassert myself as the team leader in order to do my work as effectively and efficiently as possible.

The lesson: make sure to establish yourself as the decision maker on small to large questions from the start and be aware that your effectiveness can be influenced by small concessions.

A local woman near Sariska Tiger Reserve. Photo © Kalli Doubleday.

Lastly, what advice would you give to a female researcher who wants to get involved in field work?

Very few universities have departmental or campus resources designed specifically to prepare you for fieldwork. Organize veteran graduate students with fieldwork experience for roundtables to ask questions and share tips for safety and effectiveness. Grad students are often the community with the freshest perspective on challenges in the field, and we should be helping one another as best we can.

Utilize your community: we have a lot to learn from each other!

I want to thank Dr. Doubleday for participating in this Q&A with me. She is a hardworking, friendly, and ambitious geographer who I am sure has a long and fruitful career ahead of her. Congratulations on your PhD, Kalli!

Further Reading:

Human-Tiger (Re)Negotiations: A Case Study from Sariska Tiger Reserve, India – Kalli F. Doubleday

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