Anybody who spends time in Assam’s tea gardens soon becomes used to waking up at night to the sudden, loud sounds of steel utensils being banged against each other in the middle of a winter night. This jangling alarm is the sound of humans trying to scare off a herd of wild elephants that have entered a settlement. Over the years the frequency of human-animal conflict, particularly involving elephants, has increased in Assam’s tea gardens, as has the number of casualties. In an effort to reduce such conflicts which cost the lives of both humans and animals, not to mention do huge damage to the crops, tea gardens are now becoming involved in wildlife conservation efforts.
In one such initiative the Apeejay tea company, which has 17 tea gardens in Assam, has tied up with World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-India to reduce human-elephant conflict (HEC) in their tea estates. The partnership, which is of three years duration, began last year and has just completed its first phase in the ‘hot zone’, where the maximum impact of HEC is felt.
AK Bhargava, managing director of Apeejay Tea, says that the main aim behind the company approaching WWF was to minimise the human-animal conflict situations, thereby mitigating loss, both to lives and crop. “As the forest habitats of animals like elephants disappear, more and more animals are seeking refuge in tea gardens. With a sustainable approach we want to put into action the concept of ‘our home and theirs’,” Bhargava said.
“Apeejay tea gardens cover an area of 50,000 acres. The first phase of the project however covers the hot zone, which is in the Sonitpur district. We have four tea gardens in this zone,” he added.
The “Sonitpur Model”
According to Anupam Sharma, who heads the WWF-India team in Assam, the tea garden intervention is an extension of the work they have been doing in Sonitpur since 2004, called the ‘Sonitpur Model’. The second largest district in the state, Sonitpur has historically borne the brunt of human-elephant conflict for years.
According to WWF-India, between 1996 and 2009, there have been 206 human and 131 elephant fatalities in the district. More than half of such conflict related deaths of people have been recorded from the tea estates. Of the 245 people killed in Sonitpur from 2001 to 2014 due to HEC, 128 were from the tea estates.
Hiten Baishya of WWF-India, who is an elephant expert, said that the main reason why the district is a hot zone for wild elephants is because of massive loss of their habitat within a short period. “During the Bodo agitation, in 1995-96, forests were being destroyed and people started encroaching upon that land. In a matter of 10-15 years there was a 65% loss of forest cover. Since these were the primary habitat for the elephants, they were suddenly left with no place to go,” Baishya explained. Elephants have a long life span, and therefore despite the forests not being there, they would return to their once primary habitat in which human beings now live, resulting in conflict.
When faced with missing forests in their original habitat, the elephants often took refuge in tea gardens instead. “A lot of tea gardens are close to the edge of the forests, and because of their rich flora, the elephants started taking refuge there. The frequency was more in winters, when the streams in the bordering Arunachal Pradesh or Bhutan hills would freeze and the elephants would come down for water,” Baishya added.
Tea and coffee plantations all over India have, in fact, become a secondary habitat for wild elephants when displaced from forests, Sharma says.
Fences, corridors, and little refuges
The “Sonitpur Model” basically emphasises way to manage these conflicts through non-violent means, and helps build up the capacity of local communities and forestry officials to do this. With the tea estate companies coming on board, this approach is being strengthened.
One of the steps adopted is identifying the route taken by herds of elephants through the tea gardens and then building a border with a solar fence that operate on a lower voltage than a traditional electric fence. This would administer a low-level shock that can scare the animal without hurting it. Another step is by using “bio-fencing”, an approach being used in Sessa tea garden. In this case thorny bushes are used. “For bio-fencing we will be using thorny bamboo that is easily grown in Assam and can make for an effective, impenetrable fence. We have started raising nurseries within our gardens in Sonitpur of thorny bamboo, and this can later be replicated in other tea gardens as well,” Bhargava said.
Sharma also spoke about making the tea community aware that there should be no construction on the elephant tracks. “It some cases elephants destroy houses or shops in their track repeatedly, meaning they don’t want any obstruction on their path. So it is best to avoid those areas,” he said. The Sonitpur model has also been using domestic elephants, or Kunkis, to drive away the wild ones. This is used in the tea gardens as well.
Apart from fencing areas using non-lethal means, and avoiding building in elephant corridors, there are some moves that help build little “reserves”. The McLeod Russel group which is the largest tea producer in Assam, with 55 tea gardens in the region, has started taking some interesting initiatives. Anand Watts, senior manager at Hunwal tea estate, said that the company has created water bodies in the Mangaldoi circle gardens for the benefit of elephants. The company has six gardens in this circle, in the Darrang district of Assam, which is frequented by wild elephants.
“Apart from the water bodies, the company has also preserved clusters of trees in the gardens (in the Mangaldoi circle) where elephants take shelter,” Watts said. “There are wildlife conservation camps held in all gardens to tell people that deforestation is strictly prohibited. We have also prepared posters in English and in the local language for the tea garden community and for students in the vicinity of the tea gardens to spread awareness about reptiles like snakes. This helps in conserving the rich fauna that tea gardens have,” he added.
Love the leopard too
Tea gardens attract other wildlife than elephants, leopards too commonly find refuge in tea gardens. “This is especially true about the gardens in the vicinity of the Kaziranga National Park, and in the upper Assam tea gardens, in the Dibrugarh, Tinsukia districts,” Sharma said.
Leopards, by nature, prefer to stay near human habitation where they can prey upon domestic animals like goats. Tea gardens provide them with enough shelter and the workers colonies, or labour lines as they are called, become their hunting ground for food. “This is why in the north (India) leopards are commonly found in the sugarcane fields. Farmers are aware of this, and sometimes it leads to conflict situations,” Sharma said. Watts added that in gardens like Hunwal (in Jorhat district), leopards have become “a part of the tea garden habitat” and although they feed upon domestic cattle, goats, even dogs, every now and then, “they are not a menace”. Having said that, if an animal threatens the lives of humans, the forest department is called in. “Rescue operations of animals is common in tea gardens,” Watts said.
Certified good behaviour
Most tea gardens of the big tea majors in the state are Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified, and have met the social and environmental standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) . SAN standards ensure protection of workers and wildlife, conservation of natural resources and support the financial viability of farms.
Abrar Choudhury, senior manager in Harmutty tea estate — owned by the Goodricke company — said that they strictly abide by the SAN principles. “No hunting, killing, or trafficking of wild animals and maintenance of an inventory of wildlife and wildlife habitat found in the tea garden are among the SAN principles that we abide by,” Choudhury said. Nestling close to the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, the estate often gets wildlife visitors including elephants, deer, leopard, a variety of snakes and birds, and mithun—the state animal of Arunachal Pradesh.
Most of McLeod Russel’s and Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited’s (APPL) gardens, better known as Tata Tea, are also RA certified. One of APPL’s tea gardens, Hathikuli, located close proximity to the Kaziranga wildlife refuge, has a lot of wildlife visitors. In response it has turned fully organic. “Instead of chemical fertilizers we use vermin-compost and instead of dangerous pesticides we let nature create its own predator of pests. Hathikuli means ‘frequented by elephants’ in Assamese, and our produce is safe and pure for everyone, from the consumer to the microorganisms that thrive there as well as the elephants,” an official said.
As their primary habitat gets steadily degraded, efforts that make tea gardens—the chosen second home of the wild animals—are little more welcoming is a positive sign and probably the initial step to something bigger in the field of wildlife conservation in the future.