How green is your tea?

T.R Shankar Raman Divya Mudappa | Updated on September 26, 2014

Many a splendid thing: People and wild species like elephants can share spaces and coexist in tea estates. Photo: Kalyan Varma

Many a splendid thing: For species like great hornbills, retaining rainforest fragments and native trees is essential. Photo: T R Shankar Raman

Space for all: Wild animals like gaur often graze in grasslands and swamps and pass through tea estates. Photo: Kalyan Varma

Space for all: An aerial view of a rainforest remnant and eucalyptus plantation in a tea estate in the Anamalai hills. Photo: Kalyan Varma (All photoscourtesy TR Shankar Raman)

Plantations can be seen as ‘green deserts’ but they play a crucial role in wildlife conservation

You could have imagined you were on a forest trail. Fifty metres away, the dark hulk of a solitary bull gaur, over five feet tall at the shoulder with taut muscles and thick, curving horns, looks up from the swampy valley where he stands in his white-stockinged legs. Eyes locked with gaur, your ears pick up the harsh bark of a great hornbill resounding through the cool mountain air from a patch of tall trees on the hill slope beyond. As you skirt the gaur and walk quietly down the trail, stepping past fresh scat of a sloth bear and dropped quills of a porcupine, a stripe-necked mongoose darts across, a flash of crimson bright against the background green. The green is not the multi-hued mosaic of a real forest, but a more uniform smear of a monoculture. Row upon row of neatly pruned metre-high bushes spread out in tight lines, punctuated by well-spaced and heavily-lopped silver oak trees. In the mountains of the Western Ghats, at the edge of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, you are walking through a large tea plantation.

Tea plantations often get bad press from environmentalists as ‘green deserts’. They tend to support far fewer wild species than comparable areas under native forests as large estates often grow only one crop. Still, when one takes a broader perspective, tea estates, too, can play a role in wildlife conservation. Recent field studies show that by modifying conventional land-use practices and protecting some neglected parts of the tea estate landscape, these plantations can help conserve wild species. They also illustrate how important it has become to widen the scope of conservation into the countryside, outside wildlife protected areas, such as national parks and sanctuaries.

A landscape view

Historically, tea plantations have been located in regions of great biological diversity. Over 90 per cent of India’s tea comes from West Bengal (Darjeeling) and Assam in north-east India, and the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. While Darjeeling and the southern states lie within global biodiversity hotspots of the Himalaya and Western Ghats respectively, most of Assam’s tea comes from equally valuable conservation landscapes in the Brahmaputra valley. These regions also hold the most significant remaining populations of endangered wildlife — such as Asian elephants, tigers, Indian rhinoceros, lion-tailed macaques, great hornbills and many other species, including smaller and lesser-known reptiles and amphibians found nowhere else in the world.

Today, tea plantations, like those near the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, abut some of the most important wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in places like Kaziranga, Eravikulam and Buxa Tiger Reserve. Many of the wildlife protected areas are isolated from other forest tracts, and tea plantations are often embedded in intervening areas that are now large plantation districts. If threatened wildlife species can be enabled to survive in tea districts, it increases their conservation prospects as a larger population can persist in the wider landscape.

To appreciate the potential for tea estates to support wildlife, one needs to envision the tea landscape as a space that includes tea fields and human settlements along with forest patches, grasslands, rock outcrops, rivers and streams. The tea landscapes in the Western Ghats may have more than 250 animal species, including porcupine and gaur that use tea fields, to threatened hornbills and lion-tailed macaques sheltering in forest remnants, to endemic frogs and small-clawed otters living in hill streams.

Five steps to truly green tea

The critical first step for a ‘truly green’ tea landscape is to protect all natural ecosystems that remain, within and around plantations. Tea estate maps detail tea fields, roads, factories and housing, but often leave gaps marked as ‘blanks’ or ‘estate jungle’. These spaces, along with the streams and rivers (sometimes merely considered ‘drains’), are the most interesting and valuable parts of the landscape. It is in these spaces that one finds evergreen forests, regenerating forest and scrub, grasslands, bamboo patches, swamps and water bodies that support diverse wildlife species. To place these forested areas firmly on estate maps and protect them, and not clear and convert them into a monoculture area, is the first need of conservation. In addition, planters can retain or regenerate strips of native vegetation as buffers along rivers or as windbreaks on slopes, which help protect water and crop while creating habitat corridors for wildlife. Planters can also connect with local conservation groups to carry out wildlife inventories and ecological restoration of degraded areas.

Protecting habitat and restraining land owners from further land conversion are not enough if it does not accompany another form of restraint, a critical second step: preventing hunting. In some plantation districts, although habitats remain, wildlife is scarce because of snaring and shooting. Besides poachers, some estate managers too, in a throwback to the British colonial period, still sport guns and shoot unsuspecting wildlife, especially where the Forest Department patrolling and protection are lax. Still, support for wildlife conservation is increasing with the rise of a new breed of planters who have moved on to enjoy the more rewarding pastimes of trekking, wildlife watching and nature photography.

A third measure concerns the tea fields themselves: the production area. Instead of merely seeing tea plantations as a ‘green desert’, ecologists who have studied the land-use practices find that small changes in conventional tea cultivation can make a big difference to conservation. Tea estates can avoid using the most toxic agrochemicals, and should ensure that the chemicals are applied judiciously by trained people wearing protective gear only on crop affected by pests without the chemical drift entering adjoining natural ecosystems and water bodies.

Tea plantations can also do much better on the kind of shade trees used for tea bushes. For instance, in over one lakh hectares of tea plantations in south India, planters mostly use a single Australian tree species: silver oak ( Grevillea robusta). If shade tree species native to adjoining areas in the Western Ghats were used, more wildlife would thrive in the landscape as the trees would provide food and foraging and nesting spaces. Bringing greater diversity into the landscape may also help improve the soil and control pests, thereby benefitting tea cultivation itself. Tea research institutes and planters have hundreds of native species to choose from, and they only need the will and foresight to begin trials.

Coexistence and connections

Having wildlife in the landscape brings with it a fourth consideration, that of enabling their safe passage without harassment. The presence of wildlife in tea estates, by itself, does not signify a problem. But occasionally, it does lead to conflicts such as the damage to property or unexpected encounters between wild animals and people. Small but significant measures can be adopted to avoid conflicts. In the Anamalai hills, some estates have left spaces for animals such as wild elephants and gaur to move through. Some have realigned fences to protect specific newly-planted fields or property such as buildings and housing, while keeping substantial parts of the landscape open for animal movement. These have helped reduce conflict while helping conserve these wide-ranging animals.

Finally, it helps to enhance awareness, among managers, workers and local residents to enable coexistence between people and wildlife, and among citizens who drive the industry by their daily purchase and consumption of tea. India’s 0.56 million hectares under tea cultivation employ over 2 million workers and produce more than 1.2 billion kilos of tea annually, which millions of consumers relish. Yet, even the distantly connected tea drinker, by learning about the landscapes tea comes from, the ecosystems and people who sustain it, can help conserve wildlife by choosing to consume only tea that is truly green.

Even a cup of tea reveals our enduring connections to nature, shows how conservation can be effective outside the boundaries of wildlife sanctuaries and requires efforts that involve all.

( T.R Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa are scientists at the Nature Conservation Foundation based at the Rainforest Research Station in the Anamalai hills)

Published on September 26, 2014

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