For years, the tea estates in Dooars and Assam have faced human-elephant conflict. Although elephants do not eat tea leaves, they often pass through the plantations during their long migrations, damaging the tea bushes on their way.
In estates located near forests, they also damage workers' homes, looking for food. In 2011, the workers of one such estate – Bhooteachang, in the Udalguri District of Assam – started exploring various ways and means to stop herds of elephants from the adjacent Khalingduar forest from wandering into the workers’ colonies. Along with the residents of neighbouring estates and villages, they decided to leave food (mostly truckloads of bananas) for the elephants at the edge of the forest, hoping that this would stop them from coming to the villages and tea estates looking for food.
Several tea estates located in Udalguri District, such as the two small estates belonging to Tenzing Bodosa, have developed a buffer zone between the tea plantations and the forest. These buffer zones are planted with fruit trees like elephant apple, starfruit and bananas for the passing elephants to feed on. The estates also have watering holes for the elephants and designated areas for them to rest in, especially for cow elephants and their newborn calves. One estate even had an elephant giving birth to a calf in the rest area.
Julie Stein of the Wildlife Friendly organization and Lisa Mills of the University of North Carolina are leading a concerted effort to save the endangered Asian elephant. I had the opportunity to meet them both and interview Lisa for the Balipara Foundation at the Eastern Himalayan Naturenomics Forum in 2016.
Julie and Lisa are raising money for elephants from tea drinkers around the world by branding the tea from estates that help in elephant conservation, as Elephant Friendly tea. As Julie says, “Our goal is to support conservation of elephants while providing an opportunity for tea growers to obtain premium prices for their tea based on the idea that consumers love great tea and want to make sure that the tea they drink is not harmful to elephants. Conservation in Every Cup is our motto.”
In order to obtain this certification, the estate is assessed by a team who judge whether or not elephants passing through are in danger of being electrocuted, injured, or poisoned by chemicals. They also check to see if the elephant corridor is blocked. The certificate is only awarded if the estate meets the high standards set by the organization for the protection of elephants and their habitat.
Tea estates in the Udalguri District were felicitated for their concerted efforts at elephant conservation by ‘Elephants on Line’, an initiative by the University of North Carolina, USA, to preserve these animals from man-animal conflicts.
These estates, whether belonging to large tea companies, such as Bhooteachang (McLeod Russel India Limited) or to Small Tea Growers (STGs) such as Tenzing Bodosa’s two estates, have the distinction of being the first to be awarded the Elephant Friendly certification for fulfilling the parameters and practices ensuring the safe passage of these mammoths through their estates.