New Certification Program Aims to Curb Human-Elephant Conflict

The orange to ruby red leaves coloring the landscape in my corner of the world tell the story of fall turning to winter. They warn of crisping temperatures and shorter days to come. With the natural world going dormant outside, I opt for hot green tea this afternoon. Wrapped in a blanket with a book in hand, the tea’s steam warms my nose. Its swirling dried leaves tell a different story, one from thousands of miles away that began hundreds of years ago.

India is one of the world’s largest tea producers, second only to China. Tea plantations established during the British occupancy of India in the 1800s took root and remained strong, even after the occupation ended. Today tea plantations have expanded and some of the larger tea companies are surrounded by entire communities of plantation workers and their kin, a necessity for tea companies producing and distributing product world-wide. But tea plantations have their cost. In northeast India, the cost is to the natural forest that has been replaced by tea, and to the endangered Asian elephant that wanders onto plantations in search of the forest that once was.

Elephants are highly mobile, moving across large swaths of land throughout the year. As herbivores, they commonly consume fruits and distribute seeds across the landscape in nutrient-rich feces, effectively working as forest farmers. When tea plantations are established or expand their boundaries, this activity degrades or replaces elephant habitat, creates movement barriers, and increases the odds of human-elephant interaction and conflict detrimental to both people and elephants.

Though it would appear tea growers and conservationists cannot see eye-to-eye when it comes to the Asian elephant, a new program is about to prove otherwise. The Elephant FriendlyTM Tea Certification Program was introduced recently at the Eastern Himalayas Naturenomics Forum, which this year was held jointly with the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group meetings in Guwahati, India. The certification program aims to curb human-elephant conflict by creating economic incentives for tea growers to move towards practices that are safer for elephants and help mitigate conflict. At the Forum, major tea industry representatives learned about how they can take steps to become certified under the program and access growing tea markets by providing consumers with a choice of tea that supports elephant conservation.

Developed jointly by the University of Montana’s Broader Impact Group in partnership with the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network, the certification program comes at a crucial time and place for endangered elephants. The program will launch with two pilot sites in the state of Assam in northeast India, a hotspot for human-elephant conflict and a major tea growing region. Six years of research capacity building and community-based conservation projects in the region, led by University of Montana’s Lisa Mills and Dr. Scott Mills, laid groundwork for this effort, and Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network’s Executive Director Julie Stein and the University of Montana’s Blackstone Launchpad and School of Business have helped move the program forward.

Elephant FriendlyTM Tea will be available to U.S. markets in 2017, and a portion of each sale will go back to support wild elephant conservation on the ground in tea growing communities. My afternoon tea will soon tell a whole new story, one in which conservation and corporations, elephants and people all win. That’s a story worth savoring.

asian-elephant

Want to know more about Elephant FriendlyTM Tea? Contact Lisa Mills at lisa.mills@mso.umt.edu

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