India-based Nuxalbari became the world's first large tea estate to be certified as 'elephant-friendly.' Photo: Courtesy Nuxalbari Tea Estate
India-based Nuxalbari became the world's first large tea estate to be certified as 'elephant-friendly.' Photo: Courtesy Nuxalbari Tea Estate

A tea estate in India has become the first large grower in the world to produce “Certified Elephant Friendly Tea” after research by the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN) and the University of Montana in the United States.

Nuxalbari is a 1,200-acre tea estate in Darjeeling in the east Indian state of West Bengal which is owned and operated by women. The certification is a unique program that combines efforts to mitigate climate change, educate the stakeholders – especially children – on the environment and to provide a sanctuary for wild elephants.

Lisa Mills, the liaison for the University of Montana on the project, pointed out that elephant-friendly tea aims to decrease one of the main sources of mortality for elephants. It mitigates issues that impact elephants such as habitat loss and degradation, poisoning from chemicals and other factors.

Established in 1884, the Nuxalbari Tea Estate has been trying to address climate change by reducing its carbon footprint, moving away from coal-fired to ecologically sustainable, renewable energy. It serves as a model for elephant conservation, biodiversity and ecological practices that can be replicated in other tea growing areas.

Sonia Jabbar, the director of Nuxalbari tea estate, told Asia Times that the estate had been doing conservation work for seven years before discovering the WFEN and elephant-friendly certification last year. Their work was monitored for one year and an inspection was carried out in the summer.

University of Montana researchers look at tea grower compliance with Certified Elephant Friendly Tea standards. Photo: Courtesy University of Montana

However, it was not a smooth journey. Jabbar explained: “Initially everyone thought I was crazy. Even tea scientists tried to discourage my move to organic agriculture. But I reasoned with them that before the green revolution all of India was organic.

“The key to all of this is soil health. Even with the elephants, everyone thought it was crazy  to not chase away them if they entered the estate. But then they saw another way was also possible.

“The workers’ kids who are part of our Haathi-Saathi [Elephant, A Friend] program are learning to empathize with these gentle giants.  Then when we got recognized as Green Corridor Champions of our area by Wildlife Trust of India and Certified Elephant Friendly by WFEN, it became a matter of great pride for everyone.

“A lot of people visit us to learn about organic farming or re-wilding or elephant conservation, so now we have a great responsibility as an organization to fulfill our commitments,” she added.

“There is a deep love of elephants among the villagers in India and it became clear to us that most people were saddened when elephants were poisoned, electrocuted or otherwise harmed. But people felt powerless to change.”

Mills said: “We helped make change happen, but the challenges ahead are great and scaling up for impact is vital if we are to really help elephant populations in these increasingly human-dominated tea regions.”

Jabbar said they even had to battle with the state. Initially Nuxalbari Estate covered about 2,800 acres, but that has been reduced to only 1,200 acres. “Sixteen hundred acres of our forests were taken by the Government of India in the 1970s. Today there isn’t even 100 acres of that left under their care. In this way the natural resources of our country have been plundered by those who were supposed to protect them,” she said.

She said a big part of the problem is that many think force and violence will solve everything. The current government-approved model to deal with wild elephants when they stray out of forests into human habitation is for the forest department and villagers to chase and generally harass them.

This includes shooting fireworks and detonating firecrackers at them, pelting them with stones, firing bows and arrows and even guns at them. It has become a cruel spectacle sport, often done for entertainment, she says.

However, Mills had a different story to tell. “The Indian forest department and Assam Agriculture University have been supportive of this effort, and other stakeholders are coming forward to collaborate.

“We are thrilled that our efforts are aligned with the mission of Project Elephant, a government-led initiative in India, and that ‘Elephant Friendly’ standards support the work of local Forest Department personnel to reduce human-elephant conflict and promote conservation of forest habitat and landscape connectivity for wildlife.”

Jabbar said elephants have become an endangered species. “They are endangered because we have destroyed their forests and their source of food and water. Because they are constantly harassed, once out of 1,000 times they may turn around and retaliate.

“Someone gets killed or injured and then we talk about elephant-human conflict and order the culling of ‘rogue’ elephants. It is absurd.”

Sonia Jabbar, director of Nuxalbari Tea Estate, India. One of the first tea estates in the world to get certified as elephant-friendly. Photo: Sonia Jabbar
Sonia Jabbar, director of Nuxalbari, holds up her elephant-friendly certification. Photo: Courtesy Nuxalbari Tea Estate

Jabbar recalled an incident that made her take a vow to protect elephants. “In 2012, I had just completed my first planting. It was a 30-acre plot, which had taken us months to do. One evening a herd of 60 elephants entered the estate. But something made me do nothing – we would wait and see the next morning.” The next day, the 30-acre section which had about 150,000 young tea plants only had seven saplings damaged.

Jabbar started to look for elephant-friendly alternatives. “Our security and staff are trained to push back people and create a 400-meter-wide corridor for the elephants. We are trying to create a 100-acre native species forest so that when the elephants come through they will find something to eat. They are extremely intelligent creatures. We truly believe that if you honor them and let them be, there will be no conflict.”

Since the tea industry is facing economic challenges, Mills said it was an opportune time to engage more stakeholders. This will create a paradigm shift towards more ecologically sustainable tea that is also economically viable.

“The tea regions are among the last strongholds for wild Asian elephants and what we do now on and around tea estates will determine whether or not our grandchildren will see elephants in the wild,” she said.

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