Montanans take the lead in push for elephant-friendly tea

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As part of efforts to preserve Asian elephants in the state of Assam, India, Lisa Mills gave the children of tea farmers cameras and training and encouraged them to photograph migrating elephants. This photo was taken by Anshuma Basumatary.

If you weren’t aware that elephant-friendly tea was a thing, don’t feel bad.

Until just about a year ago, Jake Kreilick hadn’t heard of it, either, and he is the co-owner of the Lake Missoula Tea Co. in downtown Missoula.

Then Lisa Mills walked into his store. Mills is a faculty adviser for the University of Montana’s wildlife biology program and a member of UM’s Broader Impacts Group, focusing on enterprise projects that drive conservation.

Working with the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network, Mills helped create the world’s first tea-certification program aimed at protecting the endangered Asian elephant.

“We hadn’t heard anything about this until she walked in our door,” said Kreilick, who owns Lake Missoula Tea Co. with his wife, Heather. Now the store is the distributor of two teas, one black and one green, produced on a farm in Assam, India, that is so far the only one in the world certified elephant-friendly by the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. (It’s even trademarked: Elephant Friendly Tea.)

As the effort expands, Mills and Kreilick are reaching out, both in terms of finding new outlets to carry the tea and spreading the word about the project. As part of that educational outreach, Mills and Keilick will give a presentation Thursday night at 6:30 in the Royal Johnson Community Room of the Billings Public Library.

The presentation will include a slide show of photos of Asian elephants and the certified farm in India, and prints of some of the photos will be on display as well. Mills and Kreilick will also be offering  samples of the two teas — Bodo Black Assam and Bodo Green Assam.

Admission is free, but RSVPs are suggested. You can make them by calling ZooMontana — the zoo is a supporter of the program and sells the Bodo teas in its gift shop — at 652-8100, ext. 211.

The name Bodo refers to the tribe to which the certified tea producer, Tenzing Bodosa, belongs, in north India. Bodosa became the first certified Elephant Friendly Tea farmer after he contacted Mills on Facebook. Mills had been involved for years in  community-based conservation efforts dealing with Asian elephants, and Bodosa had learned of those efforts.

Mills’ work had taken her to Bhutan, which is just north of the state of Assam, and she knew that elephants, following ancient migratory routes, routinely passed from Assam to Bhutan and back. She also knew that tea farming was increasingly posing a threat to the existence of Asian elephants.

Mills

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Lisa Mills, with a cup of Bodo Green Assam, in the Lake Missoula Tea Co., last week.

It wasn’t a question of poaching the animals for their ivory and meat, as in Africa. In India, the dangers included the tea farms’ steep-sided irrigation ditches, from which baby elephants often could not extract themselves. The elephants were also killed by improperly built electric fences and from ingesting toxic chemicals used in tea production.

Fatal encounters with human beings was another danger. Though they don’t eat tea plants, elephants often use tea farms as refuges on their migrations, and during stopovers, when the elephants have to wait at least three days before the newborn elephants are ready to move, they will raid gardens or destroy houses or equipment, inviting retaliation.

Mills turned to the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network for help on developing standards and criteria for elephant-friendly certification, as it had already done for other animals. Bodosa had already adopted some practices that would become part of the standards, and Mills helped him meet the other criteria. Ten months ago he became the first certified producer.

Kreilick acknowledged that it will probably be more difficult to establish elephant-friendly practices on some of the larger farms and team plantations.

“It’s still in its very early stages,” he said, “but you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Besides helping people like Bodosa establish farming methods that protect elephants — cutting back on chemicals, eliminating electric fences and redesigning irrigation ditches, efforts are underway to teach people to replant forests, and Mills is involved in programs that provide assistance to women whose husbands are killed by elephants.

Mills said Bodosa, on his own, adopted organic farming methods and started an organic cooperative with other farmers.

“He really believes in that more than the money part,” Mills said. For agreeing to meet certification standards, Bodosa is paid a premium for his tea — $2 more per kilogram than the going price, which is about $15 per kilo for his organically grown tea.

One program that Mills introduced involved giving cameras and training to the children of tea farmers and encouraging them to take photos of the elephants, as a way of documenting  their movements and showing the consequences of some of their encounters with human beings.

That really helped the workers buy into the project, Kreilick said: “They became citizen monitors, if you will.”

After Lake Missoula Tea Co. became the first business to sell Bodo tea, Cafe Dolce in Missoula became the first restaurant to serve it. Bodo is now sold at other businesses, including zoos like ZooMontana, stores and tea-coffee shops, including Ebon Coffee in Billings, which is a co-sponsor of the library event Thursday night.

Kreilick said he and Heather were intrigued by the certification program when Mills first told them about it, and even more enthusiastic after trying the two teas.

“We’d loved his tea,” Kreilick said, referring to Bodosa. “It’s got a natural sweetness to it, and no bitterness.”

Mills said the program has gradually raised its profile, and “we’ve had some pretty big press in India, so that is working its magic already.” Eventually, she said, she’d like to have “every company in the world producing Elephant Friendly Tea.”

Bonus fact: The logo of the Lake Missoula Tea Co. does not feature an elephant, despite what you may think at first glance.

The animal pictured is actually a wooly mammoth — a nod to glacial Lake Missoula, actually a succession of lakes that formed in and around the Missoula Valley during the Ice Ages. And the mammoth, of course, is the poster child of the Ice Ages.

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