Bodoland, Assam, India-Heather and I traveled to India during monsoon season. Water from the Himalayas blanket the steamy jungles, rice paddies and tea farms. It takes little exertion to sweat – heat and humidity – perfect growing conditions for tea.
Tea, elephants, and Elephant Friendly certification are the reasons we came to India. Acting at the behest of our friend, Lisa Mills from the University of Montana, Lake Missoula Tea Company purchases tea from the first tea farms to receive this certification from the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. Lisa is an American ambassador for wild Asian Elephants (Elephas Maximus).
Lisa facilitated our trip and introduced us to Tenzing Bodosa, a small tea farmer from Assam, and Sonia Jabbar, owner of Nuxalbari Tea Estate in Darjeeling District. Their commitment to Elephant conservation is evident in all they do. They provide forest corridors essential for elephant survival, use organic practices focused on long-term sustainability and social responsibility, and are true innovators with unique histories and different models that represent a harbinger of positive change in the Indian tea industry.
Tenzing is Bodo. Bodo are an indigenous tribe who inhabit the northern Assam bordering Bhutan. Tenzing’s infectious smile and charisma could fill up a room. Tenzing owns two organic tea gardens bordering Bhutan. He uses permaculture and grows native grasses, plants and trees in his nursery. He also hosts guests and world travelers in his extraordinary tree house in the middle of his tea farm.
The Bodo have waged a campaign for political and social standing since the 1980’s. In this struggle, Tenzing’s father and brother were murdered when he was young and so the political representation and socio-economic equality takes on special meaning.
Tenzing values Elephants and all wildlife-from leopards, wild pigs, tigers, cobras to porcupines — coming from the jungle to eat, drink, and live in his tea garden. Situated at the toe of Bhutan, he keeps his tea garden wild. He tolerates as well as welcomes elephants.
This involves the restoration of Elephant grass and rainforest trees that elephants eat. He encourages local people to accept elephants. Elephant habitat is shrinking and they come into increasing contact with people. One of the big issues for Elephants is the physical and verbal harassment they get from workers when they move through the tea estates and from local farmers.
At Tenzing’s tree house, we witnessed firsthand what Elephants endure. While cooking by the fire, we suddenly heard pops and Tenzing said nearby farmers were using firecrackers to frighten away the Elephants. A little while later we heard their bellows as they moved on. Their cries were mesmerizing as they reverberated through the jungle, transcending time. Though we didn’t see Elephants, we felt their presence.
Through education and the creation of jobs from sustainable forest products and services-bamboo, spices, fruits and nuts, eco-tourism and the myriad of recreational and wildlife-dependent activities-humans can live in the presence of Elephants and the species can thrive, even in an increasingly developed society.
Tenzing believes in the medicinal and recuperative powers of tea but he will not separate the tea from nature. He is fond of saying, “If you respect nature, nature will respect you.” Tenzing Bodosa’s philosophy of ecology intertwines in all that he does.
written by Jake Kreilick