Wildlife Conservation in India’s Tea Gardens

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One of the world’s largest animals, the majestic elephant holds a dear place in most people’s hearts. However, a stressed elephant can kill a human with one strike of its trunk, a fact known only too well by India’s tea plantation workers, where conflict between humans and elephants is rife.

Although elephants are still revered in India, tea estates—remnants of British imperial rule in the country—have replaced much of their natural habitat. “Tea gardens represent a significant chunk of the forests that have been cut down,” said Heidi Riddle, cofounder and director of operations for Riddle’s Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary in Arkansas, in a Sierra Club report. “Elephants can exist in them, but they meet up with day laborers who are paid almost nothing and don’t want to lose their life, so that’s where problems come up.”

These problems include electric fencing, poisonous pesticides, and ditches that can trap baby elephants—all of which can cause death to these iconic creatures.

But a movement is afoot to protect India’s elephants against these human-caused distress and dangers. A world away from Indian tea plantations, at the University of Montana in the United States, the first Elephant Friendly Certification™ was developed last year to protect elephants that stray onto tea estates. Created by the university’s Broader Impacts Group and the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN), this certification outlines standards that tea gardens should implement to protect this endangered species. The certification is an assurance that the tea plantation has adequate provision for the movement of elephants and has installed places for the animals to drink and rest. In return, the plantation earns a financial incentive and benefits from large-scale marketing, resulting in higher prices for its “elephant-friendly tea.”

“We’ve been able to improve the economic situation for the actual farmers,” said University of Montana’s Lisa Mills, who developed the program. “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.”

A grant fund tied to a percentage of the profits is given back to the tea-growing communities for elephant conservation projects, a welcome benefit to small estates such as that owned by Tenzing Bodosa, which was the first to earn the elephant-friendly certification last year. Bodosa’s tea was first picked up by upscale New York tea importer In Pursuit of Tea, which ordered 500 kilos, fetching INRs500,000 ($8,000) “It’s big money for me. For here, this is big money,” said Bodosa, a dedicated organic farmer and conservationist, who established a 74-acre wildlife preserve to attract the herds of elephants that roam between Assam and Bhutan, near where his tea garden is located. Bodosa’s Bodo Green Assam and Bodo Black Assam elephant-friendly teas are distributed through the Lake Missoula Tea Company in Missoula, Montana.

Tenzing Bodosa

Elephants aren’t the only species to worry the Indian tea estates. Leopards are a threat to human workers there too and even the aggressive (but essentially harmless) binturong are dwindling in numbers, due to human intervention. Both the clouded leopard and the binturong are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, which identifies species in danger of extinction.

Donyi Polo tea estate in Arunachal Pradesh (bordering Assam) has been the most proactive in dealing with the situation, with an ecozone created to provide a congenial environment for wildlife with minimal human disturbance. It recently introduced a pair of teas named specially for the clouded leopard and the binterong.

“The idea is to create awareness to protect wildlife that are in abundance in the tea gardens of this part of the world,” said Manoj Kumar, senior manager of Donyi Polo tea estate. Both teas are for sale at the Guwahati Tea Auction Center, one of the busiest auction centers in the world.

Several other tea estates are following suit, such as Borchapori tea estate in Assam’s Golaghat district, which has designated a portion of land inside its vast tea estate as a jungle to house elephants.

Such measures are voluntary for tea producers, according to Julie Stein, executive director and cofounder of U.S.-based WFEN. She notes that it will take time for these programs to scale up to more tea plantations, “but we have already seen rapid expansion of sales of the certified tea products in specialty tea shops, restaurants, small grocers, and now zoos,” she said.

Stein firmly believes that consumer demand will drive the most change. “The whole success of this program depends on buyers to pay more for tea, so we can give more back to the growers and they can do more,” she said. “Even if [consumers] never see an elephant in the wild, they can still make a difference by buying tea.”

Pullock Dutta in Assam contributed to this report.

Sources: NPR, Sierra Club, World Tea News