Jumbo pick-me-up

Prerna Singh Bindra | Updated on October 12, 2018

Welcome guest: Elephants have, over the years, become a part of the tea gardens in Darjeeling, as they travel through the broken forests of the Dooars images: sonia jabbar   -  SONIA JABBAR

A tea estate in Darjeeling is finding ways to brew an elephant-friendly cuppa by minimising human-animal conflict

There were elephants in the tea garden. A herd of 60 — little calves, watchful mothers, young boisterous tuskers — who had flattened the fence and clumped their way into 35 acres of tea. It was a new section, planted in 2012 after a long gap — the garden, like so many others, faltering due to the relentless recession in the industry. This section was extra-special, for it marked new beginnings — it was the first new planting in many years in the 1,200-acre Nuxalbari Tea Estate in the Darjeeling district of North Bengal.

“Should we… drive them away,” asked the manager who delivered the news to the estate’s owner, Sonia Jabbar. It was well past midnight. Jabbar looked out into the estate, which has been in her family since the late 19th century. A journalist and artist, she had just taken over the reins after her mother’s death.

Her bond with the land ran deep — and she was acutely aware that they could ill-afford any losses.

But love for the wilds ran in the family, too. As a child, Jabbar had spent her holidays in forests — trekking, camping and hunting (before it was outlawed) with her shikari father. She knew the jungle and its inhabitants. Elephants, she believes, are bodhisattvas — sensitive, intelligent, empathetic, wise.

“And there was no way I was going to hound them out of my land,” says Jabbar. So she decided to let the elephants be.

It was a sleepless, restless night.

She was at the new section at the crack of dawn, and was struck by the sight that greeted her: The field was intact. The young saplings were standing as before, and the only sign that a herd of elephants had spent the entire night in the area were the moon-like depressions on the wet earth. Of the thousands of tea bushes there, a mere seven had been damaged.

“And, to top it all, they had left behind a gift — lots of dung, the best natural fertiliser for my new field,” laughs Jabbar.

Since then, over the last few years, the elephants have quietly become a part of the gardens, coming through as they traverse the broken forests of the Dooars.

The second real test of elephant love came soon after the first episode. The humdrum of a routine morning was rudely broken by screams, crackers and shouts. A frenzied mob had entered the estate, chasing the elephants. The mayhem continued until dusk, when the crowds finally dispersed and the animals got some peace.

Confining a giant

Jabbar realised that the problem of elephants in a human-dominated landscape was a complex one. The Nuxalbari Tea Estate was part of the once-contiguous — and increasingly fragmented — Terai forests stretching from present-day Haryana up to Bhutan, passing through Uttar Pradesh, Nepal, Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh. Following heavy deforestation, in North Bengal alone the elephants have lost nearly 70 per cent of their original habitat to urban sprawl, agriculture, hydroelectric projects, highways, railway tracks, tea estates, tourist resorts, factories and housing. The heavily degraded pockets that remain cannot sustain the elephants.

Sonia Jabbar, owner of Nuxalbari Tea Estate, believes that business and conservation can go hand-in-hand   -  SONIA JABBAR


“The situation has worsened since an electric fence was erected by Nepal, blocking the traditional route of elephants,” says the ranger forest officer Suresh Narjanary. The forest department is poorly equipped and understaffed, with some ranges/divisions facing a 70 per cent shortage. The need of the hour is dedicated, well-equipped and sensitised elephant-conflict mitigation.

The blocked route confines the elephants to small, fragmented areas, thereby forcing them into human habitations. The elephants raid paddy fields in search of sustenance, destroying livelihoods and, occasionally, killing people. In Darjeeling and the adjoining Jalpaiguri district, 50 people die each year because of conflicts with elephants.

Several elephants have been killed, too. Many others bear scars, burns from the firecrackers and torches, their bodies limp and pockmarked with bullets. They are shot at by poachers, frequently run over by trains, hounded — occasionally poisoned — by farmers trying to protect their crop, and taunted and chased by young men who see this as sport or a mark of valour.

The calves born and living amid such conflict are not unlike children raised in war zones. Anxious, traumatised and having never known peace, they are more capricious, prone to get into conflict. Indeed, a 2005 study — ‘Elephant Breakdown’ by Bradshaw et al — in Nature, cited stress as a potential trigger for conflict. The use of searchlights, crackers or guns to scare them only makes them more aggressive.

Narjanary remembers that about three decades ago, when he was starting out in his job, there were more forests and the elephants were not short of space or harassed as they are now. They moved around freely and the conflict was minimal.

Unfortunately, elephants are viewed as a “problem”, requiring to be confined to designated forests, when in reality they are impelled to be on the move to strengthen their bloodlines and avoid overburdening a fixed stretch of forest. They disperse seeds as they travel, smartly packaged in dung, contributing to the forest’s regeneration and plant diversity.

Mammoth give-and-take

At the Nuxalbari Tea Estate, a different kind of experiment is underway. “The conflict can ease only if we learn to accept the elephants and if we can ease the losses of farmers, change attitudes and grant the animals the right of passage,” says Jabbar.

As a first step, the estate staff has been trained to keep away the crowds and maintain a 400-metre safe corridor for the elephants. Under the estate’s ‘Haathi-Saathi’ campaign, it has started an awareness programme for the children of workers to raise a new generation of barefoot conservationists.

At a meeting with Jabbar and forest officials in early September, the region’s farmers explained that they understood that the elephants were deprived of their home and were helpless and hungry, but they wanted solutions.

Our old ways: Deforestation and the loss of traditional routes are forcing elephants to venture into human habitations   -  SONIA JABBAR


Many of the farmers told this reporter that they do not bother to apply for the compensation the state offers for the crop loss, as the process is cumbersome and the amount negligible. Though crop loss caused by wildlife is widespread across the country, no private insurance company or government crop insurance scheme covers it, says Jabbar. Local forest officials have helped identify 15 families in the adjoining Tukriajhar village where elephants regularly raid their fields, leading to crop losses. The Nuxalbari Tea Estate is trying to raise funds to provide quick and fair compensation for any losses suffered by these 15 farmers.

This move — coupled with others — is expected to help cool frayed tempers and de-escalate conflicts with elephants.

Thanks to its varied efforts, the Nuxalbari Tea Estate has been certified as ‘Elephant Friendly Tea’ by the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network and the University of Montana, US. Tenzing Bodosa’s tea farm in Assam’s Udalguri district was the first small tea garden to bag this tag worldwide.

Such efforts are expected to set an example: Conserving wildlife in human-dense areas needs all hands on deck, and the tea industry is a major stakeholder in North Bengal.

Jabbar is currently creating a 100-acre nursery to house nearly 20,000 saplings of native forest species. This area stands out for its gentle slopes and a stream running through it, providing a much-needed sanctuary for the beleaguered Asian elephant in the summer months.

The tea estate is a half-hour drive from Bagdogra airport. It is not a tourism spot, but encourages visitors to drop in for a day to learn what goes into the making of its organic cup of tea. One can explore the 1,200-acre estate on horseback (and do some birdwatching, as well).

The charitable crèche and clinic at the estate welcomes trained doctors, nurses and midwives to work with the estate’s children and teach them. Or one can simply get their hands dirty, planting a forest worthy of its giant denizens.

Prerna Singh Bindra is a conservationist, writer and journalist

Published on October 12, 2018

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