The population of Asian elephants has declined by more than 50 percent over the last 75 years, and the culprit could be something you would never guess.
Half of the world’s population of wild Asian elephants inhabit India, which is also the world’s second-largest producer of tea.
Lisa Mill, a program manager for the Wildlife Conservation Enterprise Program at the University of Montana, has been involved with the elephant protection in the Assam region of northern India since 2010.
While working to help save the elephants, she found a correlation between the deaths and injuries of elephants and the location of tea operations.
Tea estates, have replaced much of the Asian Elephants natural habitat. According to Heidid Riddle, co-founder and director for Riddle’s Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary in Arkansas, “Tea gardens represent a significant chunk of the forests that have been cut down”.
Elephants are endangered in many ways by the standard operations of tea but it’s not just because the forest are being destroyed. While the elephants continue to live in the same area, because they have no where else to go, farmers use poisonous chemicals and electric fences around the perimeter of the gardens so their tea plants stay untouched.
Elephants simply existing in the tea gardens isn’t the only problem, however. Riddle explains that the issue is that the elephant come into contact with day laborers in the gardens. These workers are paid close to nothing and don’t want to lose their life to the wild animals.
Mill also says that young elephants can fall into the deep and narrow irrigation ditches at tea estates and drown.
Because the tea farms create such a poor environment for the animals, the decline of the elephant population is drastic.
In a quest to help the Asian elephant population, Mill came up with a solution; a certification program for elephant-friendly tea.
This program creates monetary incentives for responsible tea farming while simultaneously putting power in the hands of consumers and protecting the elephants that inhabit the areas.
The program is a shared effort between the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network and the University of Montana Broader Impacts Group.
It requires farmers to follow a set of elephant-friendly practices. In return for using these practices, the farmers get a premium for their tea sales. A percentage of that premium goes to supporting elephant conservation in the tea estates.
Included in the policies are ways to reduce contact between humans and elephants as well as minimizing the use of fencing. They want the elephants to feel as if they were in their natural habitat while protecting the workers at the same time… And it works!
The protection of the elephants in this way, could also benefit other species that inhabit the area, according to Julie Stein, the executive director and co-founder of WFEN.
Having this arrangement is beneficial to humans too! Organic farming and conflict solutions help the day laborers, who, according to Mill, are some of the, “most vulnerable people on earth”.
It also continues to allow these workers to have jobs to provide for themselves and their families.
Tenzing Bodosa, a conservation-minded tea farmer, was the first to sign with the program. “When I started farming organically, it brought back the ecological balance and even elephants love to stay in my farm,” he stated. He continued by expressing that although the elephants sometimes damage his tea plants, that their survival is more important.
Bodosa has played a large role in growing the certification program by facilitating training on elephant-friendly to other tea farmers in the area.
Bodosa’s Bodo Black Assam and Bodo Green Assam teas are sold through the Lake Missoula Tea Company in Missoula, Montana. On top of being elephant-friendly the tea is also both great tasting and smelling according to coworker, Jake Kreilick.
Stein says that the most change will come from consumer demand; the more tea bought the more that the growers can get in return to continue with their elephant-friendly practices.
All tea lovers are encouraged to buy tea from retailers that are found on the Elephant Friendly Tea website to help create the change that could save an entire species.
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