Photograph by Niraj Mani Chourasia
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For adult elephants, drainage ditches in tea gardens generally aren’t a life-threatening hazard, but if the trenches are deep enough, babies can stumble into them and get stuck, injuring themselves and sometimes dying.

Photograph by Niraj Mani Chourasia

Elephants are falling into trenches on Indian tea plantations

But efforts to grow elephant-friendly tea are helping.

You probably don’t think of your morning cup of tea as a safety hazard, but those aromatic leaves can mean injury—even death—for Asian elephants roaming Indian tea gardens, or plantations, in the northeastern state of Assam.

Tea is the second most popular drink in the world (after water), and production in India—the world’s second-largest producer behind China—reached a record high of 1.27 million tons in 2016, according to a 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Much of the land where tea is grown in Assam is flat, and since stagnant water is bad for the shrubs, farmers dig drainage trenches to prevent it from accumulating. The trenches are a problem for young elephants, which can fall into them, breaking legs or otherwise injuring themselves and becoming separated from their herds.

Or worse. Kushal Konwar Sarma, a veterinarian and member of Project Elephant, a government-sponsored wildlife conservation program, says that of the roughly hundred unnatural deaths of elephants a year in Assam—from poisonings to electrocutions—eight to 10 are the result of falls into tea garden trenches.

During the past two decades, veterinarians with the Wildlife Trust of India, a nature conservation organization, have treated 181 calves for various problems, including 42 for trench-related injuries, at the organization’s rehabilitation center in the village of Borjuri. According to N.V. Ashraf Kunhunu, the center’s chief veterinarian, they’ve succeeded in reuniting only 18 calves with their herds. Those that aren’t returned to their families are raised in captivity and eventually, if rehabilitated, are released back into the wild.

Populations of Asian elephants, which are endangered and more at risk than their African counterparts, are thought to have declined by at least half during the past 75 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the conservation status of species. The most recent estimate, from 2003, put India’s wild Asian elephant population at about 30,000. Sarma says Assam has about 5,700 elephants.

According to Lisa Mills, who co-founded Elephant Friendly Tea, an initiative that seeks to identify and encourage consumers to use brands that take precautions to protect elephants, tea gardens are widespread in parts of the state where the animals live. Elephants almost inevitably have to move through them, Mills says. “I thought—well, this is just a setup for disaster.”

Elephants use tea plantations as landmarks when navigating forests, according to Kunhunu. And because there may be fewer people in tea-growing areas, pregnant females often use them as safe havens where they give birth. Their newborns may then be in danger from the trenches.

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Elephants use tea gardens as landmarks for navigating forests, and pregnant females use them as safe havens where they can give birth.

Kunhunu predicts that the trench problem is only going to get worse because farmers increasingly are growing tea. It’s not as labor-intensive as farming rice or corn, and wild animals, including elephants, don’t eat the plants, eliminating the need for costly fencing. He says tea gardens now flank the wildlife rehabilitation center on three sides. “Their numbers are increasing. The percentage of elephant calves getting displaced will be more in the coming years.”

Elephants are like turtles

Like a turtle, an elephant that falls on its back can’t right itself. Baby elephants unused to negotiating uneven ground are particularly vulnerable to the trenches, which are about two feet wide and three feet deep, Kunhunu says. He recalls a case where a mother also got stuck as she tried to rescue her baby, which was struggling to get out of a ditch. The calf survived, but the mother died.

Injuries can prevent calves from climbing out. And when mothers try to dig their babies out, especially during monsoon season, thick mud may smother the trapped animals, Mills says. Elephants—highly intelligent, social creatures—are known to resist leaving their sick or dying behind, and a herd may linger at a trench with a stricken baby for hours, reluctant to move on until all hope is lost, says Matt Collis, director of international policy at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which helps funds Wildlife Trust of India's rehabilitation center.

That’s when Kunhunu and his team come in. They use spades and bulldozers to clear soil, and they carry injured elephants away on stretchers. Sometimes, he says, an anxious mother on a vigil will need to be tranquilized. If the baby isn’t hurt, and the herd is nearby, the rescuers will try to reunite them, Kunhunu says. But they’re successful in only about one of 11 cases.

He says that although elephants removed from trenches are more likely to survive than those abandoned for other reasons, the mortality rate of nursing calves they rescue exceeds 50 percent. Some youngsters succumb to their injuries or disease. Others reject the dietary formula they’re given or waste away from the trauma of being separated from their herd.

Voting with their wallets

“The local community holds the future of wildlife in its hands,” says Julie Stein, co-founder with Lisa Mills, of Elephant Friendly Tea. “The same communities we’re working with are the communities that might otherwise turn to illegal poaching....In the long term, what we’re looking to do is give the wildlife a value while still alive rather than dead for its parts.” The goal of the organization’s certification program is to reward tea growers who are doing it right, Mills adds.

Elephant Friendly’s standards require that drainage trenches “be angled, terraced, or stepped to allow elephants, including juveniles, to cross or access water safely” or “bridged with grates, culverts, drainage pipes” that don’t trap or injure the animals. The standards address other dangers too, such as pesticide and herbicide poisoning, electric fencing, razor wire, and human-elephant encounters. For example, electrical service lines must be underground or high enough that elephants can pass underneath, and pesticides can’t be used within five meters of a permanent water source.

Elephant Friendly Tea also requires a written plan for managing conflict with elephants, including a site map, provisions for the safe passage of elephants, and employee guidelines. Possible safety measures include using flashlights and noisemakers to deter elephants and phone alerts to notify neighbors of an elephant’s presence. According to Mills, such strategies are especially important in the tea-growing region along the Assam-Bhutan border, where the higher concentration of elephants leads to dangerous encounters with people.

Until now, only smaller, specialty tea brands have been certified, Mills says. Elephant friendly certification is “certainly not household knowledge yet,” Stein adds, but awareness is growing, and the bigger producers are showing interest. Certification can bolster marketing strategies targeted to consumers with a strong interest in animal welfare and conservation.

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A new certification program for tea growers in Assam requires that drainage ditches be made safe for young elephants and other measures be adopted to help protect the state’s remaining elephants.

If people knew more about the risks tea can pose to elephants, she says, they’d “vote with their wallets” to support brands that protect them. “If your local Whole Foods has these options on shelf, or even your local Costco, most people are going to be motivated, if everything else is equal, to buy the one that’s supporting wildlife.”

Tenzing Bodosa, a tea farmer in the Udalguri district of Assam, was the first, about four years ago, to receive Elephant Friendly Tea’s certification. He never uses herbicides or pesticides and has no trenches (his tea grows in the highlands, where drainage occurs naturally). Bodosa grows a variety of plants specifically for the elephants and other animals to enjoy, including mangoes, jackfruit, guavas, and bamboo. “Why I should be selfish?” he says. He built a dam to collect water for his elephant visitors to drink and a treehouse so people could safely observe elephants and other wildlife from above the ground.

“When I see them, I feel very happy myself when the animals are coming in my gardens,” Bodosa says. “They’re enjoying their life.”

Although elephants do sometimes crush his crops, that doesn’t bother him. For Bodosa, tea growing isn’t just about making money. “I don’t want to be a big businessman,” he says. “I love the animals, so I want to do something—what I can give back to nature. I don’t want to take, take, take from the nature.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to