Asian elephants have declined at least 50 percent in the past 75 years. (Photo by Anshuma Basumatary)

Tea for Elephants

UM effort uses inspired business idea to protect an endangered species

By Marina Richie

On any given day, 158 million Americans sip tea. Across the world, tea is second only to water as the most popular beverage. Yet few people know the deadly cost of tea production to Asian elephants or the potential of human buying power to save them.

That’s changing in 2017 with the launch of Elephant Friendly™ tea certification for plantations. The project gained steam from UM’s Broader Impacts Group in the Office of Research and Creative Scholarship, with help from the University’s Wildlife Biology Program, Blackstone LaunchPad, MonTEC and College of Business.

This story is one of innovative relationships based on local trust, science, outreach and marketing. Like the best relationships, at the heart lies respect and reverence that bridge the divide of geography and culture.

Leading the way is the first certified tea farmer, Tenzing Bodoza of Assam, India, a state bordering the country of Bhutan. Unlike conventional tea plantations, on his farm there are no electrified fences to block the passage of elephants along ancient routes or pose electrocution risks. There are no steep-sided ditches to trap elephant calves too young to cross over them safely. Bodoza encourages the great animals to wander through tea rows, knowing the plants are inedible to them. There, they feast on native trees and shrubs that Tenzing plants and maintains for them. To safeguard workers, he built housing on stilts.

As the first to be certified, Tenzing’s product value grows, and so does his ability to do even more for elephants, like purchasing additional lands for the protection of wildlife.

Lisa Mills, the UM educator who helped create an Elephant Friendly tea designation, assists with an injured baby elephant. (Photos courtesy of Lisa Mills)

Thousands of miles across the Pacific, UM educator Lisa Mills has deftly merged wildlife biology with business to transform tea drinking into a vital conservation act. To establish actual certification for Elephant Friendly tea, she facilitated a UM partnership with the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network, which conserves threatened wildlife through contributing to rural community economies. That group holds the trademark and helps set and assure certification standards.

“Elephants are my passion,” says Mills of her dedication, which resulted from a 2010 family sabbatical year in Bhutan. Today, she oversees the Wildlife Conservation and Enterprise Program with UM’s Broader Impacts Group — an organization that brings scientific research together with public outreach in innovative ways to address some of the greatest conservation challenges facing endangered wildlife species such as Asian elephants.

Her husband is Scott Mills, UM’s associate vice president of research for global change and sustainability. They team up on the project, with Lisa at the forefront. Their collective strengths catalyze conservation that’s steeped in their intimate experience of living in Bhutan. Scott’s tenure at UM dates to 1995, minus a three-year hiatus as a professor at North Carolina State University from 2013 to 2016. His field is wildlife population biology, especially in context of environmental change.

UM’s link to rare Asian wildlife began in 2006, when Bhutan biologists sought guidance for studying snow leopards. They chose UM for its globally applicable techniques to count and monitor wildlife like grizzly bears and wolverines found in small numbers and in remote terrain.

Scott Mills, a UM researcher and administrator (left), helps measure a ditch as part of developing standards for the Elephant Friendly tea certification program.

The Bhutan visit led to a Guggenheim Fellowship for Scott in 2010, a life-changing year for the family. Lisa left her position in the UM Division of Biological Sciences to join Scott with their two children to live among the Bhutanese people, eventually interacting with communities across the border in India. There, they saw firsthand how these cultures revere elephants and live in fear of them.

“During that time, Lisa and I really came to grips with the need for game-changing new approaches to conserve some of the world’s most iconic species like elephants and tigers,” he says. “Without something innovative and different, wild Asian elephants could become extinct in our lifetime.”

Lisa began her outreach in Bhutan and India with student lesson plans, games and activities to teach about elephants and their habitat needs. Then, she stepped it up a notch.

“We put cameras and GPS units in the hands of young people from rural villages to document elephant movements,” she says. “They could track the elephants to find out when they were killed — or when a house was knocked down or a crop field raided — and give a better sense of the extent of the problems.”

Asian elephants have declined at least 50 percent in the past 75 years, with fewer than 50,000 wild elephants struggling to find food, water and shelter among some of the most populated places on the planet. Those numbers are likely much lower, with many deaths going unreported, as Lisa’s project revealed. UM wildlife biology students are analyzing thousands of photos of elephant herds and human-elephant conflict incidents to lay groundwork for the ongoing monitoring of elephant populations.

“We started with education and citizen science, but it wasn’t making a dent,” she says. “Elephants were still dying and so were people.”

The couple witnessed the devastation caused by desperate elephants raiding crops and even homes, attracted by the aromas of rice or home brew. They brought in wildlife experts to improve mapping of their movements, which led directly to tea estates that offered a vestige of habitat, watering holes and nurseries. Yet elephants still were being poisoned and electrocuted, and their young were dying in drainage ditches, even if these results were unintended — a by-product of a system that makes efficient tea production the primary goal. Where fences blocked them, the elephants became stressed and dangerous to people.

“First, we gave conservation awards to tea companies that did something good for elephants, such as creating elephant watering holes,” Lisa says. “But it wasn’t enough, so I asked them what else they would do to help elephants.”

Their answers led to her epiphany. There had to be financial incentive, where conservation translated into higher profits and an ongoing pot of money to help elephants. The launch of Elephant Friendly tea certification brought Lisa in contact with Tenzing.

“It was amazing to see,” says Lisa of her first visit. “Tenzing had learned so much on his own and converted the whole place from conventional methods to organic. He was happy to have elephants come through the area.”

His two tea farms resonate with the throaty calls of hornbills and gleam with a lush diversity of plants that shelter tigers as well as elephants, in sharp contrast to the usual silent monoculture of industrial tea plantations.

Tenzing demonstrates that conservation is profitable, and with the new certification more people are purchasing his flavorful green and black teas, nurtured in his living, healthy soils. The Lake Missoula Tea Company, the first to carry the certified tea, describes the tea as “smooth Indian black. Molasses sweet with citrus and raisin undertones.”

To multiply Tenzing’s success and market the trademark label via Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network, Lisa turned to UM business students and professors, as well as the Blackstone LaunchPad, a UM-based organization designed to help entrepreneurs launch new businesses. Last spring, an MBA student team developed a business plan as a capstone project in a course taught by Klaus Uhlenbruck, associate dean of the UM College of Business. Students in other classes also had opportunities to learn about the program and contribute their ideas.

“Lisa spoke in the fall to my class on sustainable business strategies, and the students were mesmerized,” says UM management and marketing Associate Professor Suzanne Tilleman. “I am amazed by the years of work Lisa has put into this and her desire for the certification to go through and protect elephants. It’s rare to work with an entrepreneur who already has her first supplier, first customer and has done the testing of the proof of concept.”

Now businesses in three U.S. states carry their own lines of certified tea, and products are available in over 17 retail outlets, including cafes, grocery stores, restaurants, zoos and online. UM is exploring the development of branded tea products to help scale up the impacts of the program.

When it comes to assuring best conservation practices and monitoring, that’s where UM’s top-ranked wildlife biology program is an ideal fit, working with Asian elephant biologists and veterinarians, who advise on retrofitting steep-sided ditches and other practical improvements.

“It is win-win,” Scott says. “We are getting actual change on the ground for elephants. The tea farmers are making money not at the expense of wildlife, but by helping wildlife. Money from consumers will go into a fund to initiate conservation actions beyond the tea plantations.”

“We now have interest in tea plantation certification from more growers, including the second-largest tea producer and other growers in India,” Lisa says. “We also have interest from tea producers in Sri Lanka and Kenya, where companies welcome economic opportunity hand-in-hand with conservation of elephants.”

To assure measurable conservation, UM students will play increasingly significant roles, such as studying elephant movements with remote cameras and monitoring landscapes with remote sensing tools and firsthand data collection. This past spring, the Mills duo led a trip to India with Scott’s doctoral student Alex Kumar and two Indian scientists, who specialize in population ecology and Asian elephants.

“We initiated a project that I think has never been done before for any product sold as helping wildlife,” says Scott. “We are using cutting-edge science to directly connect the Elephant Friendly certification steps to specific outcomes that reverse the decline of elephants.”

It comes back to local trust and relationships, of scientists and tea farmers, of business and conservation, and of consumers of tea to its origin. Progress is measured in every elephant calf that survives, every tea worker saved from rampages and every fragment of habitat saved or restored. At its heart is perhaps the greatest reason for hope — a reverence for elephants. •

Eye of the Elephant: UM is working with tea producers in India to help protect endangered Asian elephants. (Photo by Alexander Klink)