Smooth and sweet, served hot or cold, Bodo Black Assam tea isn’t just good for you. It’s also good for endangered Asian elephants.
Together with Wildlife Friendly Enterprises and the University of Montana’s Broader Impacts Group, the world’s first two elephant-friendly certified teas are on the market, exclusively in Missoula for the time being.
Lisa Mills is the liaison and mastermind behind the project.
After spending several years working in Bhutan for Elephants on the Line, a grant program designed to reduce human-elephant conflict, Mills wanted to do more.
Incorporating the production and consumption of tea, the most consumed beverage after water, in an area known for both tea and elephants was a natural next step.
“Everybody’s still out buying tea and coffee,” Mills said. “I bet you for pennies per cup, we can save elephants. And that’s where the idea started.”
Elephants are an umbrella species, Mills said. Efforts to protect elephants will protect other species in the same habitat.
The elephant-friendly certification program can be strenuous for small farmers, who are required to meet specific standards to receive the seal of approval.
Right now, there’s only one elephant-friendly certified grower. Tenzing Bodosa lives in the Assam region of India, near the Bhutan border. As of now, all elephant-friendly tea in Missoula was grown on his 20 acres.
Mills said Bodosa is a model in his community for elephant-friendly practices and how lucrative the certification program can be.
“We needed a strong story and a visual story about having a place where we could see success, and that’s where Tenzing Bodosa comes in,” Mills said. “He is really at the forefront of the organic movement there.”
Bodosa creates his own organic pesticides to replace dangerous chemicals that can kill elephants. And rather than fencing his property with lethal electric fences, Bodosa has no barriers.
Elephants are free to cross his property in search of other grazing areas.
Elephants can become violent if they are harassed or threatened. By decreasing the interaction and obstacles to elephant movement, human-elephant conflict is reduced and fewer lives are lost.
Becoming certified elephant-friendly isn’t easy or cheap, Mills admitted, but she hopes the positive feedback and high profits will encourage other farmers in the region to join the program.
Mills said Tenzing receives $15/kg for his loose-leaf tea, whereas many larger companies pay growers only about $3/kg for bagged tea products.
This particular variety is native to Assam, and Mills said it’s unique to find a native plant species that grows into a lucrative crop for local populations.
Mills isn’t interested in stopping at two varieties of tea. She envisions every store selling elephant-friendly teas. She is also planning a special program for Indian women to grow elephant-friendly spices, which could then be exported and sold at higher prices.
Above all, Mills said there is a need for more education.
“We’re providing information to the growers on things they can promote within their community, and then we also can support education,” Mills said. “If we can do school programming around those areas in the most high-conflict areas, then we can get people while they’re young enough.”
As the program continues to grow, Mills said she is interested in drawing on more Missoula campus resources, such as student workers and the Blackstone Launchpad.
Blackstone Launchpad provides resources for burgeoning, UM-affiliated entrepreneurs. Director Paul Gladen said he helped Mills develop a more lucrative business model for her idea.
“I think there’s every possibility that Lisa will be very successful with elephant-friendly tea because she’s driven by that passion and that mission for wildlife and elephant conservation,” Gladen said.
Blackstone Launchpad offers resources for any UM-affiliated entrepreneur at any time during their entrepreneurial careers.
Lake Missoula Tea Company started selling elephant-friendly tea in the spring. It is currently the only distributor of the two varieties of elephant-friendly tea: Bodo Black Assam and Bodo Green Assam.
Jake Kreilick, who co-owns the business with his wife Heather, said elephant-friendly tea is smart for business and for conservation.
“We’re riding that interest and desire to drink better tea and the conservation and sort of the sustainable development piece,” Kreilick said. “That’s all part now of just a heightened level of consumer consciousness around all kinds of problems, particularly with stuff that we drink.”
Lake Missoula Tea Company is interested in finding more wholesale opportunities like Caffe Dolce, which is currently serving elephant-friendly tea. Kreilick added that larger venues are showing interest in the tea, such as the Montana Zoo in Billings.
Kreilick said elephant-friendly tea has had a positive impact on his store so far. The shop took the two varieties of elephant-friendly tea along with some of their own teas to the 2017 World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, allowing them to market their own product alongside the new certified elephant-friendly teas. He said there was a great response.
“It’s a great story for people who want to have that confidence that what they’re buying is definitely helping on Tenzing’s end and with his farm,” Kreilick said. “But also knowing that ultimately it’s going to help protect one of these last strongholds of the Asian elephant population.”
Lake Missoula Tea Company employee Lauren Furset has had several customers come into the shop looking for elephant-friendly tea varieties. She said she was proud to be involved in the elephant-friendly program. And besides, she added, it’s great tea.
“Each steep tastes different, and each one I like,” Furset said. “It’s high-quality stuff.”
You can find elephant-friendly tea in a growing number of locations in Missoula, including Lake Missoula Tea Company, Caffe Dolce, the University of Montana Bookstore, the Good Food Store and Worden’s. You can find more information about elephant-friendly tea certification here.