New Certification Incentivizes Elephant Conservation

The first Elephant Friendly Certification™ for tea plantations has been developed by the University of Montana’s Broader Impacts Group and the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. This certification represents standards that tea gardens implement for the protection of elephants, which are vulnerable to health and safety risks often present on tea cultivation properties. University of Montana’s Lisa Mills is at the helm of the effort and the Lake Missoula Tea Co. is the first tea shop to distribute the elephant-friendly tea.

“This certification is unique because it is very specific to addressing problems that occur in tea production that impact elephant populations in negative ways,” Mills said. “So, we are basically targeting those problems, because we spent years trying to find other ways to solve the problems and it kept pointing to doing something directly with tea growers.”

Risks to Elephants

Mills obtained input from elephant experts, tea experts, conservation experts and from people in communities that coexist with elephants and are familiar with the issues involved. Mills explained some of the dangers to elephants that are common on tea plantations, which include: electric fencing, pesticides and ditches. Electric fences present a high risk for electrocution of elephants, which like to move across great distances. Various chemical-laden fertilizers and pesticides are used in tea production. Poisoning of elephants significantly contributes to their death. Deep, narrow ditches that have been present on tea plantations since the 1800s and were created for the purpose of removing water during the monsoon season, also pose a danger to baby elephants that can fall inside.

Photo by Anshuma Basumatary

Conflict between humans and elephants is high in areas of elephant territory where there are a lot of people working on tea plantations. For example, if an elephant is highly stressed or it is protecting its offspring, it can kill a person with one swipe of its trunk. This scenario can escalate if people try to retaliate. It is normal for elephants to forage for food and eat 18 hours per day, Mills said. “But often where these plantations are grown they have displaced a tremendous amount of habitat that elephants moved through for centuries,” Mills said. Now, elephants cannot move during the day as they used to, or they encounter conflict. Consequently, elephants starve during the day and forage at night on crops. Elephant Friendly Certification™ involves making sure the tea plantation has a plan for the peaceful coexistence of human workers and elephants that allows for the natural movement of the elephants. Such a plan can include adjusting workers’ tea leaf picking patterns around the elephants’ daytime foraging cycles. Some plantations install a watering hole for elephants and bamboo to give elephants a rest area where a herd can gather safely.

Financial Incentive for Plantations

Mills and the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network knew they would have to create a financial incentive to encourage plantations to implement elephant friendly changes. They are working with the University of Montana’s School of Business and reaching out to businesses to try to help build the market for certified products.

“We are working toward larger scale marketing,” said Mills. They have reached out to several tea distributors who are excited about supplying elephant-friendly tea to tea shops and grocery stores. Elephant-friendly tea costs more. “So, we’re actually helping those that get certified find a market for their tea at a higher price than they’ve been able to sell it previously,” Mills said. “So far, we’ve been able to improve the economic situation for the actual farmers. We have hope that we’ll get into larger scale partnerships, as well.” They are also forming a grant fund with a percentage of the profits, which will be given back to the tea growing communities for elephant conservation projects.

Certification of Plantations

Tenzing Bodosa and Lisa Mills

Currently, two plantations have qualified for Elephant Friendly Certification™ and three additional plantations have expressed interest in undergoing the certification process. The two certified estates are owned by a Bodo tribesman named Tenzing Bodosa. Both are in India; one is located near the India-Bhutan border and it is very ecologically diverse. The other is near the town of Dimakuchi. The three new plantations are larger corporate growers, one is in Darjeeling, one is in Assam and one is in Southern India in the Western Ghats.

The Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network provides the review of the plantations, the certification and the logo once certification is achieved. The University of Montana helped pull together the team of experts who created the standards and the teams that walk the sites and do reviews. The University of Montana also supports the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network in monitoring the sites so the standards can be maintained. This year is the pilot program and next year they will move to full implementation. They also work with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which tracks endangered species on their red list. Asian elephants are moving toward extinction faster than African elephants.

Tenzing Bodosa and tea workers on the first Elephant Friendly Certified tea plantation

Distribution

The Lake Missoula Tea Co. in Missoula, Montana, sells and distributes Tenzing’s elephant-friendly certified tea. “If you protect the elephants, you’re going to protect the other wildlife,” said Jack Kreilick, who co-owns the tea shop with his wife. He also indicated that habitat loss is “kind of the dirty little secret in the tea industry.” They named the teas from Tenzing the Bodo Black Assam and the Bodo Green. “People are loving it hot or cold,” said Kreilick. He distributes the Elephant Friendly Certified™ teas to Café Dulce and to a natural foods store in Missoula and is expanding his distribution.

For information about the certification of tea plantations or wholesale/retail orders of certified tea, please contact Lisa Mills at lisa.mills@umontana.edu or go to elephantfriendlytea.com.