Missoula-based campaign promotes elephant-friendly tea plantations

Missoula’s Lisa Mills comforts an injured baby elephant on a tea plantation in India. (Lisa Mills)

Elephant populations around the globe are threatened, but few know about the dangers to tea farmers in India and the endangered Asian elephants that roam the region.

Tea is second to water as the world’s most popular beverage, even though only about 150,000 Americans drink it. However, consumers can help support tea farmers to reduce the conflicts between humans and elephants.

In 2017, Elephant Friendly tea certification for plantations launched after Lisa Mills, a University of Montana educator, and her family moved to Bhutan, a country bordering India. Hundreds of tea farms are in commercial production in India.

Mills discussed the product during a presentation Wednesday at 1 Million Cups Missoula.

“When you talk about really big tea plantations in elephant zones, there are a lot of deeply ingrained practices and behaviors that people are doing, and so to change the culture is kind of what we’re doing, one farm at a time,” Mills said.

Mills and her husband Scott got the help of UM’s Broader Impact Group in the Office of Research and Creative Scholarship, the university’s wildlife biology program, Blackstone Launchpad, MonTEC and the College of Business to launch the initiative.

UM researchers found that about 6,000 elephants move through India’s shrinking forests to find food, Mills said. In doing so, they frequently become trapped in tea plantation drainage ditches or killed by electrified fences that block their paths.

The Asian elephant population has declined by 50 percent over the last three generations, leaving the animals restricted to just 15 percent of their original range.

According to Mills, human deaths usually parallel elephant deaths, citing that in one farming region last year, for every 70 elephants that died from these conflicts, 70 people died. If a person is harmed or killed by an elephant, groups will often hunt and kill the animal.

As a result, Mills decided to give young people from rural villages cameras and GPS units to document elephant movement. They could also track elephants to find out when they were killed, when a house was knocked down or a crop was raided.

Farmers could tell their stories while also being a part of groundbreaking research.

“Elephants deal with this every day,” she said. “They hardly have anywhere to escape to because they’ve got to move great distances. The fragments of forest that are left aren’t going to sustain them. They can’t stay in one location. Elephants eat too much and require too much, so they have to keep moving.”

With Elephant Friendly tea certification, plantations can change their practices. The certification logo is appealing to the growing environmentally conscious consumer population, Mills said.

Tenzing Bodosa on his Certified Elephant Friendly™ Tea farm. (Lisa Mills)

Plantation farmer Tenzing Bodoza of Assam, India was the first to be certified and is a role model for other farm owners.

Bodoza eliminated the use of chemicals that are poisonous to elephants and refrains from using fencing. He even started planting fruit trees for them.

Bodoza’s product values have grown, and he uses the success to purchase additional land for the protection of wildlife.

“What I wanted to do was identify one person, who was really 100 percent there, to set forth a model. We wanted to find a small, anchored tea grower first who was doing everything perfect,” Mills said.

About three plantations have been certified so far, Mills said, and a portion of every sale funds changes that protect elephants.

In 2018, Mills started selling packaged tea called Elephant Origins and bulk wholesale tea to retail stores like Butterfly Herbs and Lake Missoula Tea Company.

Tea farmers produce black and green teas in Darjeeling and Assam, India, and growers make more than they would in the local India market.

About seven family members depend on one worker, Mills said, and hopes to provide grants in the future to support conservation efforts.

“This is philanthropic and it’s meant to raise money for conservation and our projects. We want to raise money in a way that makes sense,” Mills said. “A lot of [tea growers] want to restore forests, and they want to have educational clubs for school kids who are pro elephant. This is really big stuff because it’s going to make a big long term difference, and it goes beyond certification.”

Mills hopes that more plantations will apply for certification, so that all tea coming from the area is elephant friendly.

“That’s what we try to do at UM, is bring out current science to the world and make a difference. The Broader Impacts Group goes beyond the direct scientific publication or the direct laboratory work. We actually try to use the science and the research that’s been done at the University of Montana to change the world, and that’s what we’re doing.”