Mitigating the Urban Human-bee Conflict: Rajani Mani.

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Season 4. Ep# 25 Show notes (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi there, thanks for listening in to Season 4 episode 25 of Heart of Conservation. I’m Lalitha Krishnan, bringing you stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world. You can read the show notes for this podcast episode right here on my blog Earthy Matters. Today I’m talking to Rajani Mani, a documentary filmmaker with Elephant Corridor Films, a Bengaluru based creative agency. Currently, she is working on “Colonies in Conflict” a film that examines the state of wild bees in a fast-developing Indian landscape. Rajini, thank you so much for joining me on Heart of Conservation.

Rajani Mani: Thank you so much for inviting me. I am happy to have this conversation with you since you were quite interested in my work when we chatted. So, I’m quite excited to speak with you as well.

0:56

Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks. Of all the creatures and critters in the world what got you interested in bees?

Rajani Mani: It’s not like I’m an insect lover from my childhood or anything like that. What got me interested was something that was recurrent which I was observing around me and which was bothering me. Essentially it was these big bee hives that you see in the cities and in Bangalore, we have plenty of those on balconies. The management is called for removing these honey bee hives and the way it was being done bothered me. You know, by spraying pesticides and there are so many beehives in these high-rise apartments that I was observing all the time. That disturbed me a lot and I was trying out ways to protect it and I got interested in the story…in the bees. And I started researching them and that’s how I got interested. I love bees, I love insects. But I was like everybody else you know. If you think of insects, we humans are generally not very fond of insects. I was one of those.

Lalitha Krishnan: So not only did you get over the fear you started loving them.

Rajani Mani: There was no fear per se but there was some disgust to be very honest. Insects…for me it would be cockroaches. We are generally disgusted by cockroaches. We try to get rid of them. Bees are there. We understand pollination we studied it in school but come to think of it after all the research I’ve done—we’ve not even touched the tip of the iceberg in schools and colleges when we are taught about pollination. There’s a lot that an average person does not understand. I was one among those. I am actually thrilled to see my own transformation after the process of filming started.

3:25

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. So how many species of bees do you find in India? And, apart from the obvious hives, where else do they reside? On the ground, I’ve read. I was surprised.

Rajani Mani: There are over 700 species of bees in India. Here I have to make a distinction between solitary bees and social bees. The bee that we generally see in advertisements or on cute emojis or cartoons is the honey bee. And of the honey bee itself, we have five different kinds in India. The rest of it is all solitary bees. Solitary bees nest in a variety of places. It could be old deadwood, it could be soil, it could be any of the wild spaces you know? You name it, some of them construct little nests with leaves and twigs and things like that. Some of them burrow in deadwood and make little nooks for themselves. The social bees nest in beehives which is what we are familiar with. We see these beehives on balconies, on water tanks, on trees. So, these are social bees and they nest in large numbers. There are tens of thousands of them in one hive. So, this is the first distinction which is that one set is social bees and the other set are solitary bees that nest in a variety of spaces but basically, they all live alone. Social bees live in societies just like us.

As I was saying five kinds of honey bees live in India. We have the apis which is the honey bee. You have the apis dorsata which is the rock bee that most people in the cities are familiar with; they are quite frightened of them because they are quite temperamental. You see these gigantic, two feet by three feet hives. Then you have the apis laboriosa which is found in the Himalayan region and that is kind of a cousin of dorsata. Then you have apis andreniformis in the North East area. Then apis florea which you can find in Bangalore and all cities. Most people don’t notice them that much because they hide in bushes, in trees. They have more round and smaller hives. Then there is the Apis cerana. Apis cerana is in India, traditionally kept for beekeeping. They are the only cavity-nesting bees found in India.

In 1983, apis mellifera which is a European honey bee was introduced by the (Indian) government to promote honey bee farming. So, these are the varieties that are generally found here. The distinction between hive ??? nesting and cavity-nesting is that cavity-nesting can also be used for beekeeping.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so interesting. You know we hear of animal corridors and migratory flight paths for birds and more commonly for the monarch butterflies. What about bees? Where do they come from and where do they go from here?

Rajani Mani: Again, if you’re a ground-nesting or a tree cavity, tree hollow cavity-nesting solitary bee species then you don’t really go anywhere. You just stay in that little area and you survive there. They’re not migratory, not as far as I know. Whereas in the case of other honey bees like the apis florea there is no migratory behaviour as such. Cerana is a cavity-nesting bee. I have not heard of them migrating. The only migratory honey bee in this lot is the apis dorsata. Also, the study of bees is at very early stages right now. We haven’t found out how far they migrate, where they go. These are also a): slightly difficult considering the size of these insects. But there is one study if you look online. A scientist in Sri Lanka says that these bees can travel up to 200 km. So, no concrete evidence has happened but there is an understanding that there are two kinds of migrations that the dorsata do. One is short term migrations which are in search of forage. Eucalyptus trees or other flowering trees are in plenty in one season. Once the forage of that season is over, then the bees would migrate to a shorter distance to find more food for their huge colonies. Because there are tens of thousands of them in one colony. They need a lot of food to take care of their progeny and you know, their whole hive. So, they need to constantly find good food sources as well as good water sources. So, they keep moving. They do a long-range migration which is generally just before the onset of the monsoons. And anecdotally, I can tell you that, because there are no research papers on it—there is some work in progress—so anecdotally speaking, we do know that the honey bee colonies in the city…they disappeared just before the monsoon and returned in October. So, from October to about March-end, you would see bee colonies in Bangalore. I talk about Bangalore because it is my city. I understand what’s happening here and I’m sure similar patterns perhaps may be observed in, let’s say, Gurgaon or Bombay or wherever. People from all of these cities do reach out to me and say, “What should we do?” we do know that dorsata colonies are there in urban centres all over India.

You talked about a corridor. So, there is a nectar corridor which—since I’m not a scientist, I cannot speak about in a very informative way—but from my understanding, there is a corridor which is between October to March in Bangalore in the western ghats when all the endemic trees are blooming. There’s a rich source of food available to these bees then. That’s also when they do the colony multiplication and so forth. 

11:36

Lalitha Krishnan: It will be interesting to have an ‘ebee’ just like we have ebird.

Rajani Mani: There is some talk about that somewhat and it has been developed as well but not so extensively and it has not been launched as yet by the NCBS but we are planning to do it. There is some delay on their part. I don’t know if it’s really an ebee thing because, you know, scientists find it difficult to track colonies, to actually monitor and spot the beehive,—when they leave, when they come back—this data would be very important and helpful to the scientist. Some people do put up bee sightings on the India Biodiversity Portal. What kind of bee they have spotted, where they have spotted.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s the place to go then.

Rajani Mani: Yes, but it’s not as widespread. You are right. I was telling my friend as well. We go bird watching. If we go bee watching, I’m sure we’ll spot so many different kinds of bees and then read up about them. It will be interesting for us as well, you know?

12:52

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, the thing is it’s about 12 degrees over here, it’s really cold and I’m still seeing bees. Sometimes they’re just trapped in the house. Interestingly, you spoke about them being around from October so I was thinking they’re here in such a cold environment but I guess they’re Himalayan bees.

Rajani Mani: Where are you right now?

Lalitha Krishnan: Ranikhet, Uttarakhand.

Rajani Mani: You must be seeing the local bees of that place whichever they are.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

13:21

Lalitha Krishnan: So, even elephants are wary of beehive activity. In Africa, they actually use bee pheromones to drive away elephants? Tell us why ordinary humans shouldn’t be afraid of bees? 

Rajani Mani: I get asked this question because people think I am out to tell people not to be or be scared of bees that’s your choice. But I just want people to understand and respect them. Because, they are also at heart, wild creatures.

The only way to avoid fear is to try and understand where they are coming from. What is their nature like? What is their inherent behaviour? Right? Once we understand their behaviour and pattern and what they are all about, then we wouldn’t feel this sense of fear like…even a tiger in the jungle. We are fearful but we are also respectful. So, these insects also deserve that degree of reverence is what I feel.

-Rajani Mani

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

Rajani Mani: They do a lot and just by saying,” Oh I’m scared of bees and they’re going to sting…” Yes. Even a dog will sting if you trouble it right? Every creature which is wild at heart is going to come from a place where it has an inherent response to distress. And bees, are no different in that sense.

Lalitha Krishnan: So ‘respect’ is the word.

Rajani Mani: Yes. Exactly.

15:05

Lalitha Krishnan: Rajani, could you briefly tell us about life in a beehive? I mean, we have all read about it you know? The queen, drones, worker bees which are all female by the way—why am I not surprised? —and their roles, seasonality etc.

Rajani Mani: Yes, it’s a female-centric matriarchal system followed in a beehive. You have the queen bee who is the whole heart and soul of the hive. And everything—all the bees and all the activities taking place in the beehive is taking into consideration her protection. And, her conservation. So, she’s at the very heart. And then you have the worker bees who in their lifetime play a variety of roles. They have roles like nurse bees or roles like guard bees and they have foragers who go out and forage for food and water. Then you have the drones whose only job is to mate with the queen when she is ready for mating. Their life cycle is also very interesting because the queen lives for 3-4 years and the worker bees live for several months, maybe 3-4 months not more. And, the drone dies, the moment mating happens. So, as I said, the queen is at the heart of the whole colony. And that’s why it’s also important that when you have a beehive on your balcony, or on a tree or you are scared—irrationally scared—you have to use methods where the queen bee isn’t affected and she survives. Because if she survives, she can move on and make another hive in a very short time.

17:30

Lalitha Krishnan: OK

Rajani Mani: If the queen dies it’s the end of that entire colony as it stands.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow. You know according to the WWF website, about 90% of all wildlife plants and 75% of all leading global crops depend on animal pollinators. One out of every three mouthfuls of our food depends on pollinators. I don’t know the latest figures but in Bangalore itself, I know several beehives are removed every day. That’s just one city. It makes you wonder how endangered bees are in India. Whether they are listed by the IUCN? Also, what happens if all the bees were to disappear one day. Is there a cascading effect like how wolves save/change rivers?

Rajani Mani: (Talking about urban beehives). At one time you will have at least 10 hives. One of the things about dorsata bees which are in the wild also together, they build nest aggregates. You won’t see just one beehive on a tree. You’ll see several.

So, in some sense, in the cities, when the dorsata bees make their nests, the city apartments are like nest aggregates for them. It’s like a large tree on which all these cousins are building their nests. So, the one time a bee-hive remover is called, he would maximize his time you know? He would at one stretch remove six of them. So, let’s say there are 20,000 high rise apartments in Bangalore. And, there are 6-8 beehives in the given season. You can just guess how many beehives are being removed during this period. It’s a scary shocking number in any case…the number of beehives that are removed routinely.

19:25:

That’s one part of it. Is it listed in the IUCN?  No. It is not listed in the IUCN. There is no data that says that these bees are under threat. In India, in fact, there is no data at all. There is no data about the number of bees we have. Like, the kinds of bees, the species that we have….it’s incomplete data. Whatever we have, is old, British times data. Now, there are some amazing people like Dr Belavadi –he’s a taxonomist—who are generating data and are collecting all the records. There is a lot of bee species yet waiting to be discovered. I can tell you that from 2015-2021, every year, the number of beehives, I am getting in my society have reduced. I was filming in Coorg and the farmers tell at one time, around February, after Shivratri, the bees start coming. All the forests are blooming at that time. And, at one time you have literally 100s of dorsata bees on a single tree. That’s how they are. They always come back to the same location, year after year after year. Because they have something that’s called site fidelity. That’s the unique thing about dorsata bees.

21:08

And if this farmer says 30 years ago we had 100 hives now we barely see 30 or some years the bees skip altogether like 2020, when I went there, they had skipped altogether. There is anecdotal data that perhaps there is a decline but I cannot say that there is a decline. I don’t think that while the forest and crops are all dependent on various kinds of animal pollination including our bee pollination, how would it have a cascading effect? It would have a cascading effect. In fact, there are a couple of things that are interconnected in this.

Bees are a keystone species. The minute I say they are a keystone species and if I remove-and you would know that if you remove a keystone species and there is a disturbance in the species, the whole arc will fall. This is the same case with bees. Not only honey bees-it’s not only dorsata I am partial to, it’s all kinds of bees.

22:25

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. What do you hope to achieve with your documentary, ‘Colonies in Conflict’?

Rajani Mani: I think, I want people to see bees in a way they haven’t seen bees before. I want them to really notice them. Because people understand what honey is, they consume honey, they consume food, that’s why they survive. All of that is a result of pollination. All kinds of specialist bees pollinate special crops that we are used to eating now. But we don’t understand the input or the value of bee pollination whether it’s our food or our forests. So, I hope that for a moment that this film will make you stop, think, pause and just observe the beauty of the bees and what they do as in what we do to them.

23:20

Lalitha Krishnan: Right.

Rajani Mani: You know there are a lot of films that are made from the human angle of how dangerous it is to hunt for honey. Honey hunters who climb on all kinds of cliffs to harvest honey…

Lalitha Krishnan: I’ve seen those.

Rajani Mani: But this (film) is still is not about honey, it’s about the bees and it’s about the very precious service that the bees give and provide to us.

Lalitha Krishnan: Excellent. And you’ve been filming for quite a few years, right?

Rajani Mani: I’ve been filming since Oct. 2019 but we had a brief pause because of the pandemic and also the shoot is seasonal. I can only film when the bees are around. Like I said, the flow is October to March or April is the period that I can film. During the monsoon, you don’t see bees. There’s nothing I can film at that time.

24:20

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. So could you share a conservation-related word that’s significant to you? It could be bee-related or not be?

Rajani Mani: At the moment, it would be ‘pollination’, you know? Because, I think pollination of our wild spaces, our forests are dependent on insects like bees, whether they are social bees or solitary bees. And, we need to recognise that we have to continue to have forests space, have safe spaces for our animals, for our biodiversity as such. So ‘pollination’ it is.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was hoping it would be. We keep hearing of putting out sugar water for bees in summer. I don’t know if this is a weird question but how can we not kill with kindness? Could you share some guidelines on what not to do?

Rajani Mani: You don’t really need to put out sugar water but what you can do… They will figure it out. The bees are there because they have found food sources close by. If there is no food source, they will not be bees there. So don’t worry about their food source or their forage and feed them sugar water and all that but they do need water. Especially social bees because they build these large hives and they have such a huge population and it gets hot in the summers. They need a lot of water to keep cooling off. So, what you can do is have a shallow bowl and fill it with pebbles and a little water and keep it just like you do for birds, you know, you place it for the bees.

The bees are in your balcony they are there for a very short time; three months, not more than that. So, try and not to use that balcony especially if they are dorsata bees. They are the only ones that build hives on balconies. And, close your window meshes and close your curtains by 4:30 pm because these bees are phototactic. They get attracted to light and they come inside the home. Actually, the ones that come inside the home are foragers.  They are out foraging. That’s when they get attracted by the light and they come inside, and then can’t break away. They won’t sting you. They are you know, in distress themselves. There’s a lot about these dorsata bees which is interesting and crazy…I don’t know if you have the time for all that.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, especially in urban spaces it’s good to know what you should do and what you shouldn’t do.

Rajani Mani: So, let’s say, when the bees want to build a hive, a bunch of them will come earlier and they do a recce and they will see if your balcony or your space is suitable for them. And at that space you see let’s say, 50 or 100 bees hanging or festooning on your balcony, you can light a herbal agarbatti and the smoke will distress them and they will think that this is an unsuitable place and they will leave by themselves.

27:50

The other thing you can do is…let’s say you were out on a holiday, you came back and you find this hive and one of you is allergic and you can’t afford to have this thing…what you can do is again light a herbal agarbatti –not a doop—below the hive for a couple of days, like 2-3 days. So, what happens is when the smoke comes it disturbs the bees. So, they decide this is no longer a viable place. And the queen will stop laying eggs. But they will not fly away immediately. They will take about 15 days which is the period they need for all the food and the resources –the entire brood to emerge. Once the entire brood emerges, then the bees fly away to another place. But the queen will stop laying lays once the hive decides this place is no longer viable. Then, it’s a two-week waiting period. Then they leave. So, you can try these things you know? The more conservative ways rather than pest management spraying or taking matters into your own hands because that’s quite cruel.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s fantastic. Thanks for enlightening us about the bees. It’s been really nice talking to you Rajani.

Rajani Mani: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed listening to Rajani Mani and all about bees as much as I have. Do check out some links about her work and the whole transcript for the show on my blog Earthy Matters. You can listen to Heart of Conservation on many platforms. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com I’m Lalitha Krishnan signing off. Till next time stay safe, be kind to bees and do subscribe for more episodes.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Podcast cover photo courtesy of Rajani Mani. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

Useful Links: https://www.elephantcorridorfilms.com/

https://indiabiodiversity.org/

Women for Nature: Vena Kapoor Ep #22 Part II. Heart of Conservation Podcast

Show notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi! I am Lalitha Krishnan and I’m back with part 2 of episode #22 of the Heart of Conservation podcast. This is season 3. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world. I’m speaking to Vena Kapoor one of the leading members of the Education and Public Engagement Programme at Nature Conservation Foundation. As an ecologist conservation researcher, she has had interesting experiences which include exploring spiders as a natural pest control agent in the rainforests of Valparai, to working in finance for NCF in Mysore. She is a recipient of the Ravi Shankaran INLAKS scholarship and holds an M.Phil in Conservation & Leadership from the University of Cambridge. She also writes conservation-related stories for children. You can read more about her on the NCF website ncf-india.org but for now, let’s hear it in her words. This interview was conducted over Skype.

Lalitha Krishnan: Vena, thank you so much for coming on Heart of Conservation and it really means a great deal to me.

Vena Kapoor: Thank you for inviting me here, Lalitha.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure! So at some point in your career you were studying spiders and snakes also I think and helping restore forests in the Western ghats and then apart from, you know, you write about urban wildlife on pavements and walls, etc…  So could you tell us about the transition from your earlier work to now?

Vena Kapoor: Sure Lalitha, I’m happy to do that. So just to set the context, I do not have a science degree I actually did my under graduation in B.Com and I think like a lot of people just went to a regular convent school which really had absolutely no kind of career guidance thing and I really didn’t have a family who, you know, where there was anybody who’s working in this, in the field that I was really interested in and my only exposure to conservation and wildlife as such were through, you know, the documentaries that they would show on Doordarshan once in a while and whatever books I could get hold of either in the school library or something that my grandfather would bring from his friends. They used to be the BBC wildlife books and things like that. So, I used to kind of pore over them and look at these pictures of exotic wildlife all over the world and really didn’t think that you know, a career in this line would be possible. Soon after my B.Com, I kind of spoke to one of my teachers who put me in touch with a couple who was running an organization in Chennai called Center for Indian Knowledge Systems. They were working on traditional agriculture and healthcare and they needed someone to help him do some research on the effects of pesticides, you know, on agricultural plants and I was very excited about kind of, you know, trying this out. And, it was quite amazing that they took on someone like me with zero work experience to kind of help them with this work. Over there, Dr Vijayalaxmi, who was one of the people who founded the organization, she for her PhD did work on spiders especially one species of spider which specializes in catching cockroaches and so the office was full of books and photographs of spiders and it just, it was completely by both accident as well as a little bit of encouragement from them that I started just looking at this group and it just got very very kind of excited about, you know, reading about the amazing diversity of spiders around us and, you know, and they were interested specifically on seeing if spiders can be used as natural pest control agents in agricultural fields, especially in paddy and so I started kind of looking into that and my first field kind of research work in fact was in the Guindy National Park in the heart of Chennai city and I started documenting the spiders there for the organization as well as for the Forest Department and that’s where my interest in spider started kind of growing and, you know, I started doing workshops and giving talks to people because I had this huge kind of collection of pictures with me and so when I finished my Masters, sorry after I worked in this organization in Chennai, I decided to kind of look at getting a degree in ecology and wildlife sciences but the only place that would accept me as a non science student was the Pondicherry University because all the other places which had a Masters programme, the requirement was that you had a kind of undergrad degree in science. So I was disappointed but, as I said Ok, you know, let me join the Pondicherry University programme and so I did my 2 years Masters there. As part of my Masters’ thesis I looked at particular species of spider-the Green Lynx spider had a relationship with a kind of plant–the jatropha plant–and the kind of foraging techniques that they were using with the plant… it seemed to have a mutualistic kind of relationship. So soon after that there was an offer up that I heard about that the Nature Conservation Foundation was looking for someone to help them with their rainforest restoration programme that they had just started a couple of years before. So in 2004, sorry in 2003 I went to Valparai, very excited because I had you know, experienced working and living in the forest just once before that for a few days and so the prospect of doing actual fieldwork and field research in a rainforest area thriving with wildlife and these really cool kind of wildlife biologist was very exciting and so… What was supposed to be a six-month stint turned out to be a 4 year kind of engagement with the work and the programme. And so, while I was in Valparai, I ended up doing a lot of things which really helped I think, me think about you know the kind of multi-disciplinarity that feel like conservation has potential for. And so in Valparai while we were doing the rainforest restoration kind of work with the tea and coffee estate companies over there, there were studies which were being done on birds in certain rain forest fragments, small mammals and fragments and but there was really a dearth of information about spider and insect life in a lot of these forest patches. So, you know, we started discussing whether I should look at documenting spiders in this particular landscape and see if the community composition, you know, changed between each of these forest fragments and what did this mean for rainforest restoration work that we were doing. Were certain groups of spiders or a certain species of spiders was it completely absent in a rain forest fragment for example that was extremely disturbed? Right? And so, there were studies to show that birds get affected by extreme fragmentation or a lot of disturbance. Some groups seem to thrive, some completely disappear, so was this the case for spiders as well? And so, I did this year-long kind of field research work in that landscape and that turned out to be not only just fun and interesting but it also became very useful to add to the documentation work that was going on in that landscape and, so you, know the species that we found were not only used to see certain, you know, some of these rainforests fragments that we were trying to restore were also bringing back the wildlife or not. It was also used a lot in public engagement programmes where specially in exhibition setups in places like that and also for writing a lot of articles and, you know, research papers and things like that. After four years in Valparai, I felt that I needed to take a break, you feel being in a kind of a place like Valparai can also kind of completely cut you off from quote-unquote normal the normal world. I felt like I was living in a bubble for too long.  So I decided to come back and I relocated to Mysore and over there I wanted to kind of assess what I wanted to do further, you know, moving forward and so I kind of went into a part-time position to start with helping the organization with a lot of the admin and accounts kind of work, hoping that that kind of work would give me the flexibility to dabble with other kinds of things that I wanted including writing and, you know, assessing whether I wanted to get into a research field or not. There was also this brief flirtation with doing, whether I wanted to do a Ph.D. or not, and then I quickly realized that a PhD wasn’t for me at that point in time at least and so while I was helping, the organization it was also going through an interesting transition at that point of time. We were having to raise funds for the institution but we were also growing slowly and so systems had to be put in place and so I headed the admin and accounts team for about 2 1/2 years and but at the same time I was also, you know, I co-wrote a book for children with Aparajita Datta on the rain forests of the North East and the animals and the plant life for the children in the schools over there. Yeah, so it’s called the Secrets of the Rainforest, again a book which is available for download for free, I can also send you a copy later on too.

But so again yeah so then after that is when I found out in 2010, early 2010, I found out that there was this kind of a new course being set up in the Cambridge University called the M.Phil in Conservation Leadership Programme and it was meant for people who had at least three to five years of experience in the conservation field and it was meant to be a programme to engage with conservation with a very multi-disciplinary kind of a lens and so, you know, there were different departments that were going to be involved – the Management Department at Cambridge, the Economics Department in Cambridge, the Geography Department in Cambridge and so it was very exciting to kind of look at, you know, the prospect of having to engage with conservation in a very disciplinary, interdisciplinary lens?

And also the kind of step back and allow me to get back in to touch with recent research which was going on. And so I was fortunate to get a scholarship from the Ravi Shankaran INLAKS fellowship programme that was again set up that year and so I got a full scholarship to go to Cambridge and it was a one year course and it was an excellent course in terms of also giving us the ability to critique conservation in the way it was being done. You know, it was also the first time I had to write essays, that was a bit challenging for me, you know, our education system is so different in terms of examination, you know, very unidirectional kind of teaching. This is the first time I was exposed to, you know, a space where we could question our teachers and have discussions and group discussions and critique and, you know, you had to do a lot of self-learning, there was library access with any book or journal that you wanted access to, so it was intense but it was extremely useful for me I think at that point in my career to get into that course.

Lalitha Krishnan: That sounds so interesting starting with your work. I had no idea spiders eat cockroaches but the only problem is, who if you ask somebody, which one would you prefer I’m not sure what they would say.

Vena Kapoor: Well the good thing about this particular species which loves to eat cockroaches is it’s nocturnal. You may have seen it, it comes quite often to bathroom spaces at night.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah we have large ones in our bathrooms always, they just live there so we just let them be, but we don’t have cockroaches, I don’t know what they are living on.

Lalitha Krishnan: On a more serious note, how do you persuade teachers to incorporate your nature learning curriculum and use your outreach material into their existing programme or plan?

Vena Kapoor: You know, it works sometimes, it also doesn’t work sometimes because we find that we have to keep going back to the teacher and reminding him or her that, you know, “Are you including the nature learning element in it? What do you think should be the nature learning element in it?”

Lalitha Krishnan: And not everybody is so receptive.

Vena Kapoor: At that point, they see the value in it but often because you are rushing to have to finish the portion and, you know, then you go back to your traditional kind of learning methods, right, because there’s comfort in that, there’s familiarity in that.

Lalitha Krishnan: So then do you want to talk about what resources you’ll are working on and what you’ll use?

Vena Kapoor: Sure, so we are actually now in that phase in our work where we are kind of designing our modules and our curriculum and thinking of all the different kinds of tools that we can use and one of our main goals is to make it age-appropriate and this is where we are engaging with a lot of kind of theory and practice around the education field. What other people in the education sector have been using, right?  So we kind of try and read research papers to see what kind of tools work for which age group, what are they more receptive to, right? And again, as the conservation community, we tend to rely heavily on things like posters and books, you know, and flashcards which are good but sometimes it may not be appropriate for a particular age group, so we’re also trying to bring in elements like storytelling, poems, theater, language. You know, it can just be stick doodles, you know, it could be building blocks. So those are the kind of tools that we are trying to see what might work with different age groups, also keeping in mind that again each school will have access to a certain amount of outdoor space, right. One of the Govt. schools that we work with has absolutely no outdoor space, right? So what can we do in a situation like that? How do we make use of the fact that they may have one Singapore cherry tree outside the campus school campus?

So Lalitha, the other thing we do is again as part of our engagement with the teachers, are we also try and take them for a short walk around their schools, you know, because we have also realized often teachers think nature is out there. It is far away, you have to take children to a park or the zoo, you know, so often teachers would tell us you know we need a day off or two days then will take the children to Cubbon Park or to Lal Bagh which is in Bangalore and you know then we can show them the trees and the shrubs and the creepers over there because they’re learning that in the textbook. And then we have to tell them, you know, come with us for a short walk, just a 10 minute walk around the school and we see all the examples that you want to show your children are all here actually. So you just have to kind of look around and explore your area a little bit and you will find all sorts of examples in nature that you can use. So we find that’s also sometimes very kind of powerful for a teacher to kind of come to that kind of understanding that, oh you know, “I really don’t need to take too much time off to get my children to experience nature outside the school or even within the school campus”.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah exactly. I’m a big believer and, you know, just knowing your backyard and just discovering what’s there, so I think that’s great.

Vena Kapoor: Often they say, oh there is nothing, you know, what can we, how can we, what will we show children? Then we start taking them and pointing out its ‘X’, pointing out spiders, pointing out the birds and you can start seeing, you know, they really get excited about this. They say, “We have been here for 10 years in this school and we’ve never seen this”.

“Oh, I didn’t know that this was here”.

 “Oh, I didn’t realize”.

You know, that itself is again for us also it’s a form of trust-building and getting to know the teachers better. A lot of them also, you know, have become good friends of ours that also helps I think, a little bit when you have engagement with them.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes. You also partner with larger organizations like WIPRO so how does that work?

Vena Kapoor: Again WIPRO has a huge network of organizations and educators that they work with and support and so we try and work with some of them because they have access to schools in different parts of India and they are embedded within that school system.

Lalitha Krishnan: So what kind of organizations are we talking about?

Vena Kapoor: So there’s this organization in Madhya Pradesh called Samavesh, they’ve been around for quite a while and they work with schools and teachers in and around Panna, the Panna Tiger Reserve. So we’ve been kind of working with them and training their trainers, so it’s like training the trainers’ programme, right? And then they take a lot of our ideas, and our kind of processes and some of the tools that we’ve designed to the teachers over there and then they end up training teachers over there based on, of course, on their local requirements. So we kind of encourage them to use their, you know, local natural history stories, you know, what is it that, what are the myths that some of the people in those areas have, right?  And so to kind of deconstruct that and to talk about that. Can that be included as part of the nature learning that they discussed with the teachers?  And then, in turn, translate to the children and to keep stressing it has to be localized, right, to their situation. So those are the kind of training programmes that we’ve also been doing and for the last one year because of COVID we’ve hardly had any, we have had almost no physical contact with the school kids, all the teachers that we work with and so most of it has gone online. So the training that we’ve been doing online, unfortunately, we have not had a chance to connect with any of the government schools that we were working with earlier because they don’t have access to the internet

Lalitha Krishnan: And they also shutting and opening so randomly one never knows there’s no stability at all right now.

Vena Kapoor: Exactly, exactly, so we are also trying to figure out, you know, how we have to approach and restructure some work. A lot of the training that we’ve been doing online has been received very well thankfully so far. People are now going back to their field areas, you know, having the discussions within their own teams as well and we’re hoping that maybe in about 5-6 months we also open this out to anybody who’s interested. So far we have been only working with groups of teachers or organizations that we, have either approached us or you know, we know and then we said OK we can offer this training to you.

Lalitha Krishnan: So what kind of ….open to who? Give me an example?

Vena Kapoor: Open to any teacher educator who is interested in the space. It can be you also, we will be very happy for you to kind of participate in our workshops. And again all these workshops are open source, we are conducting them free of cost, you know, and we kind of showcase the kind of materials and the other approach that we take in the nature-learning work that we’re doing. So in a few months, we are hoping that we’d be able to conduct, you know, do workshops for anyone who’s interested in. It can be even parents who are kind of homeschooling their children, right, for example, because we think we have enough content, and also very specific examples people can use along with their school curriculum and textbooks that they use in the class.

Lalitha Krishnan: What about, you know, like village schools that don’t have Internet and very few resources and… would it be possible?

Vena Kapoor: Yes! So there again, extremely kind of cognizant of this and in fact, one of the schools, two of the schools, government schools that we worked with earlier, like I said, we didn’t have any access to them and many of them are also first-generation learners, right?  And many of them are also migrant workers’ children. So, for example in Bangalore the kids are familiar with Kannada, they can speak Kannada fluently but they still can’t read because they’ll come typically from, you know, Bihar, Rajasthan, UP, and other places. There is one Urdu medium school where Kannada again is understood and spoken but the medium of instruction for them is in Urdu, right? So they can’t read and many of them are first-generation learners, so what we did is we put together a few physical learning kits which had to be very, very kind, of which didn’t have too much text in it but relied on things like very simple poems, riddles, games put together some of these physical learning kits which we are calling. Some books from Pratham as well, storybooks from Pratham as well, and we kind of distributed them to their kits so that, with the hope that their learning is not just completely cut off or shut down. There it had some pages in which they could colour and engage and you know they had to narrate stories to us and they didn’t have to do it in Kannada, they could write it in any other language or they could record it on their phones and bring it back to us if they wanted. So we gave them that flexibility.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK, nice!

Vena Kapoor: It really helped that, especially in one of the schools we are working with another partner organization in that space and so two of the teachers are in that particular village.  So they would also, you know, occasionally try and connect with the children at a social distance, asked if they had any problems with some of the work that was given, you know, so there’s also some kind of dialogue which is happening occasionally. What the 2nd wave means we don’t know as yet, we are all a little worried, lots of kids have gone back to their hometowns, so we don’t even know if we meet them again, when we meet them again, what this means for their learning. So yeah, it is very painful and heartbreaking in these spaces.

Lalitha Krishnan: True, these are trying times as it is but you seem to have challenging situations, to begin with, so how do you cope?

Vena Kapoor: So within the programme and across NCF also we’re trying to kind of collaborate much more and try and do joint training sessions, now that each of us has our own little experience in our own little silos, we are now starting to talk to each other to see how we can, you know, not work… I mean yes it’s important to work you know separately as well teams because we each have our own experiences and training and, you know, on-ground experiences that we have but can we think of a more holistic kind of training programme that we can do not something that we start talking to people.

I want to maybe add that you know a lot of the work that the nature classrooms project does, a lot of it is to do with the people who are part of it as well, right?  So I have two extremely motivated wonderful colleagues, you know, who are part of this work and each of them come in with their own kind of skill sets and experiences to this work and that’s really strengthened it. So for example, early on in the work when I was thinking of this project I wanted and a person with a background in education to join, right, because we are really, because the idea was to work with schools and teachers and I thought that’s a very important kind of skill set to have or a person to kind of, you know, head that part of the work. So Roshni came on board, she doesn’t have any kind of formal training in education but she has been a teacher for 6-7 years in a school set up and she comes with a psychology background as well and she has kind of really given shape to the work in terms of understanding what teachers would, you know, react to work. How teachers would respond to certain kinds of things. The empathy factor with the teacher is also there, right, because she was a teacher herself in the space and so that became very important. Last year I had my colleague Laboni joined the project where she comes in with some experience in education and teaching and outreach but she also comes to training in design and illustration, right? So that becomes very important for us for designing our material and tools because she thinks with that hat on and she comes with that skill set and so you know. What is the kind of material and what are the shape of the material and these tools need to take in order to get someone like a teacher excited about and a child excited about as well, right? And those could take very different forms and so and so really the strength of the work right now and the way moving forward will, is the fact that all three of us come with such different skill sets and experiences and yeah and it’s exciting to work with such a diverse set of people.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, could you share a word with us that’s significant for you …related to conservation.

Vena Kapoor: For me, I think it would be ‘Natural History’ and I think that’s really what’s missing in our very well-intentioned reason for, you know, making environmental sciences compulsory in schools, there seems to be this missing element of, you know, the fascinating aspects of nature, the inter-connectedness of nature, the ability to explore and discover and connect and sensorial experiences that you can get in nature. A lot of this is part of also learning about the Natural History of different organisms and there are so many fascinating stories waiting to be told to be shared with so many people and I think they’re really missing out on the crucial element. I mean, the little bit of Twitter engagement that I have and I would think that OK people should know this, but so many people in fact say, “Oh my God, I didn’t know this, thank you for sharing”.  I keep thinking, you know,  we really need to push for more natural history stories and I think that’s what is a key to get people excited and interested in nature and without that excitement and love and a feeling of wonder and connection for nature as a starting point why would people want to protect it, right, later on in life?

So, you know, we kind of push people with the narrative of climate change, climate destruction, deforestation, yes it’s important to talk about these issues which are happening maybe to adults and maybe to slightly older children but to put that emotional burden on young children I think is extremely unfair and we really need to start with getting children specially excited with nature and to feel a sense of love for nature and then to start introducing them to, you know, the connections and the inter-connectedness and then issues which are going on, the problems which we need to kind of solve.

Lalitha Krishnan: Nice, yeah, it’s the right way to think. Thank you so much.

Vena Kapoor: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share our story and journey.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode, stay tuned. I’m Lalitha Krishna and you’re listening to Heart of Conservation. You can read the show notes on my blog Earthy Matters. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Heart of Conservation podcast is available on several platforms so do check it out. Until next time, stay safe and keep listening.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

Photos courtesy: Vena Kapoor. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

How Tea is Becoming a Powerful Force for Elephant Conservation in India.

Heart of Conservation podcast Episode #16 Show Notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi guys. Thanks for listening in to Heart of Conservation Podcast (ep#16).  I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories that keep you connected with our natural world.

How about a cup of chai? Join the club. Apparently, 25,000 cups of tea are drunk around the world every second.  Tea is the second most-consumed drink in the world being second, only to water. I wonder if the number has gone up with self-isolation? Fact is the Coronavirus has been a rude awakening forcing us to rethink how we live and consciously try and change how and what we consume. Say hello to Elephant Friendly tea. Yes, you heard right.

Today I ‘m speaking to Lisa Mills, program director at the Wildlife Conservation Enterprise Program at the University of Montana – Broader Impact Group.  The University of Montana in partnership with the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN), has released a science-based guide or standards for the certification of tea producers under the Certified Elephant Friendly™ Tea label. Lisa has been working to save the globally endangered Asian elephant for the past 10 years and is now facilitating the ‘Elephant Friendly Tea Certificate Program’ in northeast India.

Lalitha Krishnan: Lisa, welcome, and thank you so much for speaking to us on Heart of Conservation Podcast.


Lisa Mills: Thank you this is exciting.


Lalitha Krishnan: For me as well Lisa. Thank you. So, when and how did you start working with the Asian elephant?


Lisa Mills: Well it’s a bit of a long story but the brief version is that I am married to a wildlife biology professor and I also was working with the University of Montana when he got a sabbatical to go work in Asia and I needed to leave my position at the University to go spend six months in the country of Bhutan where he was training wildlife biologists. I’m a wildlife educator so I was looking for something to do. Our children were in school, in a village school in Bhutan and they were ages 8 and 10. I needed something to do. So I offered my services to the country of Bhutan. They said why don’t you do an education program on elephants. I said well I don’t know much about elephants but I’m certainly willing to pull together information with some research and see what we can do with lesson plans for teachers about elephants so that they can teach science-based information to children and think about human-elephant conflict, and what can be done and what’s helpful to people living in elephant zones. Well, this took a turn in that I realized that elephants are transboundary between India and Bhutan and the more I looked into this the more I saw that there was an opportunity for something more than lesson plans to give to teachers. There was a lot of interest in doing something transboundary with both countries involved in having the villages that lie in high human-elephant conflict zones coming together for a purpose to improve things for both people and elephants. I began that and then we got a couple of different grants that help start some… we did citizens science. So we actually had a group of volunteers from across six village sectors across the India side collecting information about elephants, what was happening and we had made the education program very real and alive in that they were able to share things that were really happening on a daily basis. And, we started mapping that. We got students here in the United States -college students involved in the product as well- taking information and mapping what was happening. So sort of what came of it was the very beginnings. It laid the groundwork for my current work but I wanted you to know it just started as something we would develop for teachers to use.


Lalitha Krishnan: But that sounds so interesting. Lisa, I have a very basic question. Could you explain the connection between elephants and tea? I don’t see everybody seeing that connection automatically.

Lisa Mills: So, back in the 1800s when the British established tea gardens in India there wasn’t a lot of thought about elephants and their movements of course and there wasn’t a lot of scientific work back then in this area but what happened was those tea plantations were established using …you know…the tea plants are not eaten by elephants but it was a plant that was derived from a native plant… there were different types some from China some from the far North East which is today the Northeast India region. These plants became useful commercially and the British established these tea gardens. They just plopped them right into the middle of where elephants have been moving forever and so what happened there is these tea garden stayed and they’re still there to this day and these elephants will move when they can as long as there are corridors and their movement areas are still open they use these areas. They don’t eat the tea plant but they use these as stopping places. They are quieter sometimes than the outside areas. Sometimes they’ll even birth their young inside these tea plantations. So you know, for elephants there is often no way to avoid tea plantations and just walk around them because they are sometimes quite large and they are in the middle of an area that they need to get from one forest fragment to another. Of course, as we lose more habitat overtime elephants have to really figure out how do they get what they need to get their needs met. Tea plantations play an important role certainly in some areas as far as, you know, what happens in those tea plantations really matters for elephants.


Lalitha Krishnan: Right. I knew some tea estates are part of elephant corridors and it’s news to me that the elephants sometimes even birth there. So basically, as elephant habitat is shrinking I suppose the number of elephants is also shrinking in all of Asia. Right?

Lisa Mills: All of Asia…India of course still has the most significant numbers of Asian elephant so when you are talking.. by some figures there is only 40,000 left in the world…of.Asian elephants and this species are quite different from the African elephant it’s cousin, right?
And India… the current estimates—we could check the numbers—the numbers are ever-changing depending on how the counts are done…they’re not perfect numbers because of course, these elephants are not easy e to tell the difference between individuals and they’re difficult to count in within a couple of days. So anyway, these counts are done in a way that gives us a pretty good estimate. So we are looking at under 40,000 elephants in all of Asia and in India, somewhere closer to, it looks like 27,000 or so. But we can check the latest numbers. And there is a percentage that are captive elephants in India as well. It is historical that elephants are kept in captivity but they also might play a role in conservation…even captive elephants at some point.


Lalitha Krishnan: Lisa what are the main reasons for elephant mortality in Assam?

Lisa Mills: Well, it’s beyond just Assam but where we did the original collecting of information with this idea in mind that something is causing extremely high mortality rate of elephants and we are trying to figure out what that is; it’s not perhaps a simple answer. But what we found is that back when we started this work in 2012-13, there was a lot of poisoning of elephants, and it’s kind of hard to tell what was the source of the poisoning was. We also found a lot of electrocutions and ditch deaths. So, there were these deep narrow ditches in tea plantations that carry the water out of the area during the monsoon season. They’re also difficult for young elephants to cross over without falling in. Sometimes…many times, the outcome is fine. The baby elephants move with the herd and can traverse these, but the numbers are also pretty surprising how many don’t make it. They get caught in there, and as the mother and other elephants try to dig them out, they often get covered in mud. We’ve seen a lot of ditch deaths but the number today the No 1 mortality cause over the last year has been electrocutions. So this is low hanging livewires. Also, people illegally tapping those live electric lines and putting, say, a wire around their crop field as preventing elephants from raiding a crop but the problem is, you know, it’s extremely dangerous for both elephants and humans, and other animals as well. So we’re finding a really high number of elephants are getting electrocuted. And this is entirely preventable.


Lalitha Krishnan: I’m a little surprised. I thought you were going to say elephant being hit by trains is the main cause of elephant deaths.

Lisa Mills: Yeah, those numbers are on the rise, for sure. I’d like to look at what those numbers are coming to that. Electrocutions, because they happen here and there all over the place, you know, and the numbers are adding up right? And I think people don’t always have the tools to think about an alternative for protecting their crops. you know there is such a thing as safe electrical fencing if you must fence. If you are just desperate and you must fence you can use electrical fencing in a way that is safe. And we do it with livestock all the time around the world. But training and having the proper supplies to do this takes up a lot of effort and you know, it needs to be a concentrated effort. And the people who are using these methods that are dangerous aren’t always in a position to go to a store and buy proper supplies or access training. Not that we want to encourage everything getting fenced off anyway but we understand it’s not easy to live in elephant movement zones and grow what you need to grow to survive.


Lalitha Krishnan: So, in situations like this how would a planter kind of resolve these conflicts?


Lisa Mills: Human elephant conflict is a very broad category. OK. For example, we have found over time if we bring science to this we see that elephant behaviour is often a reaction to what’s happening around it. So, when elephants get highly stressed, they have stress hormones go up and you can test for this even in the feces. You can test and see that their hormone level…certain hormones go up. These stress hormones also you know, relate to behaviour. So when an elephant is feeling highly stressed, like when they being chased, and harassed and constantly moved… nobody wants them. They’re being pushed, yelled at, things are being thrown at them… rocks are being thrown up them…When this is happening especially you watch, there is usually a male protecting the herd and this male can get quite aggressive towards people. So, a conflict might be an example that I saw in November and I see every year. I go to India every year to observe what’s happening in different places—what you’ll see is especially around the harvest time you know, around November, early December even late October, these elephants are trying to get a free meal along their pathway. A lot of the forest is gone and they’re just looking for that rice field that is coming… they can smell it from miles away and there just like, “We’re just got to get a meal”. In the dark of night, they might go out and try and raid a crop field. Well, of course, people have poured an entire year of work into this crop and it’s what the family needs to survive so there’s going to be conflicts from that. But also as elephants move through tea estates and tea farms, between these, between the farms where they can raid crops and between the forest where they can get native vegetation to forage on, and get to the water that they need and so on, they are going to keep encountering people. Like “We don’t want you near our village, near our crops.” So, there are people chasing them in one direction and then people chasing them in another direction and the stress levels get high and the aggression. Elephants can take a person and drop him and kill him just like just like that. I think one another thing we are seeing is those tea plantations where they have a plan and they manage it tightly, where people can’t come into the tea estate and harass elephants, where it is kept calm—there are some good examples of this out there—elephants can relax a bit there is less danger. Now, there are some best practices for guarding your crops. There are some ways to do things. It’s not always 100% safe but you don’t want elephants to get habituated to eating rice. You want them to go back to the forest. You want them to eat native vegetation but when they get habituated, they do regular crop-raiding. So, there are, sort of, some elephants that are more wild and there are some that are absolutely getting away with moving around during the harvest season close to the harvest season and raiding crops. And how to manage this? The forest department overseas elephants. But they, don’t of course, on their own have enough people to control crowds of these sizes or to stop all of this from happening. And they really don’t come into the tea estates themselves and handle it. So, what happens within the boundaries of the tea estate is up to the management. We see real differences in what happens. We also see where its kept calm there tend to be fewer conflicts that lead to you know, people getting hurt and killed, and elephants of course also can get killed from conflicts. I hope that helps.


Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, you painted a clearer picture for us. I read somewhere that sometimes elephants die because of chemical poisoning. How do you convince tea planter to go organic? It can’t be easy.


Lisa Mills: OK, first of all with the Elephant Friendly Certification Program that we had to establish what were the things causing problems with elephants. And this took a pilot …this took years of work and information. Early on we started including tea growers and even large companies were involved were saying. “What would it take to reduce all these hazards? What would it take to eliminate all these hazards?”. Elephants don’t appear to get poisoned by just walking through a conventional tea estate because that has been sprayed. That’s not at all what we are finding. What we are finding is improperly stored chemicals, curious elephants especially young elephants might get into some chemicals because they have salts in them and they might take them into the bodies and die a few hours later in another location. So, we are nesting on a campaign to go 100% organic but we find that organic growers will tend to… they’ve already you know, completely eliminated one of the potential hazards for elephants which are chemicals contributing to the potential for chemical poisoning of elephants. So, they have one major step already taken care of for it being elephant-friendly. Now a conventional tea grower might say, “Well if we could get an economic opportunity that would come from you know, doing what needs to be done to improve things then we would do it”. And they need to be able to offset those costs of changing what has been an industry that’s been running for long before we thought about this elephant-friendly certification program. By the way that is a partnership between the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. They are the certifying body and the University of Montana basically initiated this project and brought the science to this. But the certifying body is now is a group that is very, very used to doing certifications around the world that benefit wildlife. They understand fully that compliance takes effort time and often money to change things that have been not friendly towards wildlife in some way. The industry can change. It’s just often you have to find how you’re going to pay for it. That’s what tea growers tell us. If the market was developed for Elephant friendly products then it will be easier if we could see a price premium come from the sale of certified products it would be much easier for us to implement this. Because they are dealing with a number of different certification programs and pressures from industry. But we are seeing more and more tea growers showing interest and more and more are coming on board and some are going through certification at this time.


Lalitha Krishnan: So, did you manage to get a good mix of the smaller and bigger tea estates on board?

Lisa Mills: Yeah, we started with really…the pilot involved two small farms one small…l I should say smallish… for the organised sector tea gardens but now we are getting some interest from what I understand… the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network is coordinating the actual certification- from what I understand, interests have come from really large growers to small growers. It is I would say right now, the ones going through the certification process this time I would consider to be small to medium operations but we are definitely beginning to see interest from not just from small grower sector but from the large grower organised tea sector where we’re seeing the interest. But part of that is the markets beginning to respond. We’re seeing brands beginning to say, “We will carry the certified elephant-friendly products”. That drives a lot of this. If there is a market, I think there is an opportunity here for the growers.


Lalitha Krishnan: That really sounds encouraging.

Lisa Mills: It is. I didn’t know because we’ve had our bumps believe me. The pilot was full of bumps along the way but we learned a lot and we keep learning. I think if we can continue to find ways to connect growers and brands and make sure this scale of opportunity happens and keeps happening, I think we can do a lot of good.


Lalitha Krishnan: Could you give an idea or a few examples of some elephant-friendly practices that are being employed in some tea estates?


Lisa Mills: Elephant friendly standards… there’s a link to it on the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network; there is a whole page for Elephant friendly and now a link to the standards is posted there. So, anyone can go look at them there. I am just going to give you some highlights for those interested they can read the whole document which is quite extensive. But basically, they’re looking at eliminating the risk of electrocution; so, no low hanging electrical live wires that elephant can touch even with their trunk. There has to be no electrical fencing that is you know, unsafe for livestock. So basically, elephants are kind of like equivalent to horses or cows or people in that if they touch a fence it is just as hazardous to a person or an elephant. So, you know you’re looking for that as well. They can use electric electrical fencing if it is safe and there is a way to do that. We’re are also looking at keeping the elephant corridors open so there is no news of elephant movement you reduce conflict by allowing elephants to move without encountering fences and walls. And so basically as they one of the requirements is that they know the elephant movement patterns and they make sure these corridors of movement remain open and that elephants can move freely disturbed. The other thing is there has to be a human-elephant man conflict management plan in place. So that’s a requirement. We have some tips and helpers for folks who want to develop those plans but those are based on research. They have been tried and proved. There is no perfect solution; it is difficult no doubt but there are best practices and there are some things that make things worse. So, we look at those and then also ditches…. these deep narrow ditches that are about the size that a baby elephant would fall into and not be able to come out… you are really looking for… like some tea plantations have mitigated these. They have filled them if there were some problematic ones in the elephant movement areas. They might fill them a bit with rock and make them less steep or give them soft angles to the sides so that elephants can cross more safely in these zones. They’re also looking at if the use chemicals how they store them. Are they elephant proof? And also, safety issues like wells water wells and ponds. Are they safe so that elephants can’t fall in them and not be able to get back out? So, having either if it’s a well is it covered safely so that elephants, especially young elephants, can’t get trapped but also a pond having safely graded slope on the edges so that elephants can get back out. You’ve seen probably pictures of these where elephants get trapped in the water area and can get back out it happens.


Lalitha Krishnan: It happens.


Lisa Mills: Those are some of them. There are others as well but a lot of it has to do with you know, are you allowing people to come into the tea plantation from outside and harass and chase elephants? That would be an absolute NO. That should not be allowed as it only increases stress levels of these elephants and makes it more dangerous perhaps for the people in the next town over but elephants need safe passage and tea growers in these zones are a part of the bigger picture. We hope if we get enough tea plantations co-operating and coordinating together and helping the forest department calm the situation, then you get your, you know, think about… I don’t know… in some cases is there an alternative to growing crops that are attractive to elephants in key movement areas. A few folks have worked on this. What can be done? Are there alternate crops that elephants won’t raid? Are there opportunities for growing these crops elsewhere so people will have the food they need without it being raided in the middle of the night where elephants must move you know? These are just a few of the highlights but you can look up the rest and read it all

Lalitha Krishnan: This is important Lisa so I’m going to summarise what you said.1 Ensuring that there are no low hanging electric live wiring or unsafe fencing, keeping elephant corridors open, having a human-elephant conflict management plan in place based on best practice; fixing deep ditches, making storing of chemicals elephant-proof and managing safety issues with wells and ponds. And restricting people from outside the estates from coming into the estate to chase elephants. These are just some of the requirements for elephant-friendly tea certification. One can read up some of the rest online.
Would it be right to say that part of the elephant-friendly tea profits goes back into conservation?


Lisa Mills: Depends on the commercial company. Elephant Origins is one company that is putting money right back into a fund that helps communities basically with their co-existence work with elephants. Any company sourcing certified elephant-friendly tea basically they are all helping support the program itself and to help it expand and spread. So, any sales will help both the farms themselves and will also help, you know, raise these issues more broadly. Whether they donate an extra percentage back or not. That is just something that Elephant Origins has made part of its mission as a company to be philanthropic and give back and raise money for…so much more is needed. Meeting certification alone is a significant step towards conservation though.


Lalitha Krishnan: Moving on, unlike the US, as far as I know, there aren’t any specific-species-friendly products in India. Do you see a future market here for say ‘leopard-friendly coffee’ or something similar?


Lisa Mills: Well, there was one… a couple of attempts have been made. There’s been a ‘wildlife-friendly certified’ coffee. I am not sure if they are actively continuing. I think they’re working on it… they did a pilot I think they are working on it with the farmers now. That would be a more general ‘wildlife-friendly’ it would include a number of species. There’s also someone working on spices under ‘wildlife-friendly’ as well. Ok here’s an example there is a ‘Jaguar Friendly’ program’ kind of like the University of Montana is involved with elephant-friendly there is a group called Procat Columbia and they are working in South America with coffee farmers to protect jaguar habitat. Like elephants move through tea, jaguars move through these coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Colombia, and maybe other countries as well. And they are doing really well because they founded a company that sells coffee that has a good market and they are selling that into the supply chain as Jaguar Friendly Coffee. And I think that… so far so good. There’s also a project called Ibis Rice out of Cambodia. It’s a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network who we partner with for certification. And that has been really successful. The rice goes into European markets I believe and also in Asian markets and it protects the Ibis Bird. These farmers have to commit to not cutting down any additional forest they have…certain things but they get a price premium for that rice. And it has been a really effective program from what I understand. I think the potential in India is huge. The biodiversity that India has and the need for producing foods, beverages are great and there is also an international market that is there already and can be expanded I believe. So, I think absolutely, leopard friendly, hornbill-friendly… you have so much biodiversity. How to protect it? Getting creative. I will say these things aren’t easy. It’s many years of work for us and we are just getting started.


Lalitha Krishnan: This is the beginning. The coronavirus is already making us think about changing our evil ways so to speak and making us more conscious about what we’re doing and consuming.


Lisa Mills: I hope that is the outcome. It is absolutely… I noticed there is a change here even people are starting gardens. I know I am. People are thinking about where their money is going…. in ways that we have never been, truly, forced to. My hope is that it will inspire conservation by the average person. You can’t always think of how to help; it all seems like too much to do but what choices you make at the grocery store… the market, do really matter.


Lalitha Krishnan: Lisa do you have something you’d like people to remember?


Lisa Mills: I think for me, I want to make sure that the message is that we don’t necessarily want people to drink less tea. That is not our message. Tea is an affordable beverage that people can enjoy. It has health benefits and anti-oxidants. We don’t want people to shun away from it because they are afraid that it is harmful to elephants. Think about the industries that could take its place. That could be much more harmful to elephants. I think my message is encouraging good farming practices with things like certification but also other things. Knowing who your farmer is, you know, knowing what their practices are, make a difference. Not just for tea but for about anything in kind of that your relationship between where your food and beverages are grown versus just blindly picking up products. You know, it’s such a powerful force for change.


Lalitha Krishnan: Anyway, in India, you needn’t worry about people drinking less chai.


Lisa Mills: We have tea everywhere we go. I love it. I love India. Tea ..its the social fabric of society.

Lalitha Krishnan: Absolutely. I usually ask my guests to share a new word or term that’s conservation-related. I think elephant-friendly is a good one for many of us. But do you want to add something more?


Lisa Mills: I would say is that don’t ever doubt the power of just a single cup of tea. 1 cup of tea… that drinking one that is elephant-friendly you know is supporting that farmer whenever they took the steps… a lot of work went into meeting the criteria and what I would say is I will leave you with the thought it’s extremely powerful, this one cup of tea. Imagine that multiplied by all the people that drink tea and how powerful a change will happen. I mean these are elephants that are truly endangered. They’re globally endangered. We could lose them, literally lose them in the next 20 to 40 years on this planet if we don’t intervene. And that’s what these cups of tea are basically like a major intervention for conservation. I’d love to see people drinking elephant-friendly tea and sending stories of how they felt and how they feel about that. Drinking tea that is truly not harming elephants is a wonderful thing and we invite those big brands… those big growers to get on board. I think there is going to be more opportunity overtime for them to see economic benefit. They got to see it sometimes to make changes happen. Because you know they are working on thin margins often but it’s a powerful force. So, thank you.


Lalitha Krishnan: In India, we love our chai and we love our elephants. The elephant-friendly label means we enjoy chai while elephants can roam free and safe like they were meant to. Do read up The Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN)- India for more info.


I’m Lalitha Krishnan. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation podcast. You can listen to previous episodes on Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple podcasts, or several other platforms. If you know somebody who’s doing interesting work or whose story should be shared, do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Stay safe. Stay consciously healthy and keep listening.

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