Guwahati: With forest cover projected to shrink in the elephant landscape of Northeast India, conservationists and a handful of growers of the iconic Assam and Darjeeling teas are experimenting with a mix of ideas to link tea farming to conservation.
India is the second largest tea grower after China and the 172-year old Assam tea industry in northeast India leads the country’s tea production.
According to 2011 census, the population of Assam forms 2.58 percent of India.
Assam with an elephant area (15, 050 square km) the size of East Timor, is India’s prime elephant range state, harbouring 5719 jumbos, the highest population of wild elephants in the country after Karnataka.
While connoisseurs across the world deliberate on the perfect cuppa, tensions mount as habitats shrink and sprawling tea estates block historic migratory passages of the jumbos, stoking incidences of man-elephant conflicts in the state.
As recent as October, tea garden workers laid seige at the residence of the garden’s manager after a herd of wild elephants reportedly trampled a labourer engaged in plucking leaves, in Assam’s Udalguri district, along the scenic India-Bhutan border.
But small tea farmer Tenzing Bodosa, who owns two gardens in Assam’s Udalguri district, takes pride in the fact that his farm produces certified elephant-friendly tea.
Transboundary walking routes
Herds of wild elephants move back and forth with the seasons across the international border between India and Bhutan.
Bodosa’s farms totalling 40 acres have been certified as the world’s first elephant-friendly tea farms under Elephant FriendlyTM Tea program, a partnership of Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network and the University of Montana Broader Impacts Group.
Bodosa, who switched to organic farming methods around 10 to 12 years ago, maintains a small refuge patch like a forest as an extension of his farm. Unlike other growers in the area, there are no drainage ditches where the ambling pachyderms can fall into or fences that hinder their progress.
“I preserve plants such as bamboo, elephant grass and different fruit plants that elephants prefer in their habitat. I have a buffer area where I maintain forest patches where the elephants come. We do not use pesticides or poisons. During day-time they take shelter and then towards evening they move out,” Bodosa said.
The certification programme serves as an incentive to tea producers to reduce the impacts of tea agriculture on elephants, observed Lisa Mills, liason for University of Montana on this project.
Adherence to certification standards helps wild elephants by reducing the blockage of elephant corridors, lowering human-elephant conflict, eliminating electrocution and poisoning risks and mitigating ditch hazards, Mills said.
It also replaces habitat loss with habitat recovery and supporting landscape connectivity and foraging opportunities for far-ranging wild elephants in a human-dominated landscape.
“With a percentage of every sale going back to support elephant conservation in the communities where the tea is grown, tea drinkers can directly support human-elephant co-existence.”
From your cuppa to elephant habitat
Apart from Bodosa’s farms, the 1200 acre Nuxalbari Tea Estate in Darjeeling in northern West Bengal has become the first large tea estate in the world to be certified as elephant-friendly this year. West Bengal, on the east coast, is intersected with inter-state and inter-country elephant corridors.
Sonia Jabbar, who runs the organic tea estate, had initiated human-animal conflict mitigation and conservation steps seven years before coming across the certification programme.
“We have made a commitment to abstain from violence and protect elephant herds as they visit our gardens. It is heart wrenching to see how elephants are hounded and chased away with sticks, stones and fireworks in what was once their migratory routes. We would have continued with our efforts whether we received the certification or not,” Jabbar said.
For instance, the estate’s Haathi Saathi (elephant is a friend) initiative educates and sensitises workers’ children while security guards are trained to let the jumbos pass through unharmed.
Kushal Konwar Sarma, noted elephant veterinarian and veteran conservationist, explained that vast swathes of forests were alienated for tea plantations in 19th century Assam under the then British government as part of their “wasteland grants.”
The book “Playing with Nature: History and Politics of Environment in North-East India” states that “in the face of huge expanse of forested areas and the discovery of tea, imperial interests came to include forests within the connotation of ‘wastelands’, something that is waste and so becomes necessary to put to productive use.”
“These plantation areas were government lands on lease to the tea companies, they do not belong to the tea gardens. It was a condition given by the British government initially that we are giving you this plot of land on lease for tea plantation but you have to leave ten percent of the area for wildlife. But people forgot about it and only a handful of tea gardens are following this,” Sarma said.
“When we started our conservation work we realised that elephants need a place to rest, they need some food and water. Tea is not palatable to the elephants. We formed the idea of community elephant refuges where people can maintain a forest of couple of hectares with a perennial source of water which we can do with the help of the bigger tea gardens and the whole area can be replanted with food trees for the elephants,” Sarma said.
Tea gardens as part of elephant-friendly landscape?
Elephants see tea gardens as an extension of their forest habitats, but it is difficult to convince people to act on it by introducing refuge patches, Sarma concedes.
“They say ‘why to bring the trouble to your courtyard’ but we counter them by pointing out that the trouble is already here. These elephants are hungry, they are on empty stomachs, they are like tsunamis, they break through your houses and raid crops. But if you create a refuge, they will visit your villages but they will visit like gentle ocean waves,” he said.
“We have managed to convince some good tea garden managers in Udalguri and Sonitpur districts. They have earmarked areas for wildlife. These areas are frequented by elephants,” observed Sarma.
Scott Wilson, co-author of a 2013 study that analysed elephant occurrence and related instances of human–elephant conflict from two sites in Assam, said tea plantations in themselves could potentially be considered as part of a larger more elephant friendly landscape.
He iterated that areas where the pachyderms seek refuge (tea and other agricultural plantations rather than national parks or other significant natural habitats) could be manipulated to manage human-elephant conflicts.
But these measures are more of a “firefighting” mechanism, according to Wilson and Sarma.
“Realistically, resources are probably better focussed on protecting and expanding the core elephant habitats within India and protecting elephant populations providing the best probabilities of long term persistence,” Wilson, Head of Field Programmes, Chester Zoo, said.
Chester Zoo’s Valerie de Liedekerke who manages the Assam Haathi Project adds that there may be instances where key elephant habitats could be effectively ‘connected’ using mitigation and improved refuges, but she suspects these instances will be rare.
“I wouldn’t advocate that efforts shouldn’t be made to improve elephant conservation and welfare in these plantations, just that they need to be realistically assessed when considering the wider elephant landscape and where strategic investment of effort should be,” Liedekerke said.
Sarma said the inevitable is already happening.
“Everyday elephants are dying of electrocution, poisoning, farmers are killing them, somebody is killing them for ivory, trains are running over them across the country. If you target one species like this then how long will they survive,” he wondered.
Official figures show nearly 800 people were killed by wild elephants in Assam between 2006 and 2016. As many as 72 elephants were killed between 2013 and 2014, with more than 100 killed in 2012.
Forest cover in Lesser Himalayan elephant landscape predicted to fall
Assam’s forests and its elephant corridors are reeling under encroachment pressure. Studies by the Wildlife Trust of India reveal that in northeast India 52.2 percent of elephant corridors are under settled cultivation and 43.4 percent under slash and burn cultivation.
Indian government data has linked tea gardens to a decrease in forest cover in some Assam districts.
“The decrease in forest cover in some districts is mainly due to rotational felling in tea gardens, shifting cultivation and developmental activities,” the environment ministry’s State of the Forest report said in 2017.
A 2018 study that monitored the reduction of forest cover in parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh over 42,375 square km in an elephant landscape falling in the Lesser Himalaya in the northeast, predicted a further likely decrease of 9007.14 square km by 2028.
The analysis which covered a vast elephant landscape spread across West Bengal-Assam, Assam-Bhutan and Assam-Arunachal Pradesh borders in the lesser Himalayas, found “an alarming, continuous” loss of about 7,590 square km (17.92 per cent) of forest cover from 1924 to 2009.
The area under tea gardens also increased during the study period. Other non-forest categories too showed progressive increase in area in time and space, and a further increase is expected by 2028. Area under tea gardens is expected increase from 713. 97 square km in 2009 to 720.54 square km in 2028, the study said.
Wilson, whose study extended to the tea garden dominated Sonitpur district, also referred to as the ground-zero of human elephant conflict, said the animals used the tea plantations (in Sonitpur site) as ‘stepping stones’ as they move through a human-dominated landscape.
“Taking refuge in the plantations during the day and then moving out during the night to continue their migration or sometimes to just use the tea plantations as a ‘base’ for periods from which they will then forage in outlying cropland during the night,” Wilson said.
There is evidence to show that they raid crops or grain stores of communities that surround tea plantations, said Wilson.
Wild elephants also use the elongated and narrow gardens along the southern banks of the Brahmaputra river while moving to and from the Kaziranga National Park and Karbi-Anglong hills, observed Sarma.
The problem of plenty
Wilson’s study elaborates that the tea garden communities are largely composed of immigrant labourers, and such communities may not have the experience of dealing with elephants or share the local tolerant attitude towards elephants, which is influenced by religion.
The Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change highlights that development activities and houses in movement path of elephants (especially labour lines in tea gardens) are also causes of encounter between human and elephants leading to conflict.
These communities live on the edge of tea gardens, which function as refuge areas, and are therefore situated in high-risk areas for human–elephant conflict.
“Our study found that communities in proximity to refuges (whether this be forest patches or tea plantations) were significantly more likely to experience conflict with elephants (predominantly in the form of crop raiding or damage to granaries),” said Wilson.
Ideally refuge areas need to be forest corridors rather than tea plantation – these would have wider wildlife and ecological benefits, he added.
But in many areas the domination of people in the landscape makes this prospect very difficult – in terms of acquisition of land to make into refuge but also the fact that it potentially invites greater conflict for the communities surrounding these refuges, Wilson said.
Such an undertaking would therefore need very strong stakeholder support and mitigation measures to enable communities to coexist with elephants.
Sarma said we have collectively allowed human population to grow beyond the carrying capacity of the land.
“This is an ecology fragile area and is a biodiversity hotspot and we need to preserve sanctity of the place. Politically motivated trans-migration of people (pre- and post-Independence) was engineered. In addition, almost one crore of tea garden labourers come from Bihar, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. So when people are here, they need land for survival and now elephants have nowhere to go,” Sarma bemoaned.