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The rich biodiversity of tea gardens

Many tea plantations are home to wild birds, butterflies and rare plants, and they treat conservation as a priority

Craigmore Plantations in the Nilgiris. (Photo: Preetam Koilpillai)
Craigmore Plantations in the Nilgiris. (Photo: Preetam Koilpillai)

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Some time ago, I was in the Nilgiris, visiting the 135-year-old Craigmore Plantations. M.N. Bopana, the managing director of the estate, listed the soil, tea bush and people as the firm’s “three fixed assets”. “Everything else is replaceable,” he said. The tour of the estate was almost all about the garden’s environmental initiatives and welfare programmes.

At Craigmore, 20% of the 1,200-hectare property has been left untouched, and, over the last two decades, a further 7.5% has been allowed to go wild. In 2010, the company commissioned the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India to document the estate’s biodiversity. Conducted over a year, the study concluded that when done right, a tea plantation can, indeed, offer a habitat for animals to thrive in. The elephant, tiger and leopard were spotted, yes, but so were the dhole, the Nilgiri marten, the brown palm civet and the dusky striped squirrel—in all, 38 mammal, 25 reptile and 16 amphibian species. As many as 119 bird and 96 butterfly species, and 320 plant species, were documented. A botanical survey conducted in 2019 shone the spotlight on more than 50 rare medicinal plants.

It seems clear that tea estates can, and do, make an important contribution towards protecting biodiversity. And there are many estates which treat conservation as a priority.

Recently, when I visited the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Ltd in Munnar, Kerala, I saw a poster of frog species in the office. A study on frog species endemic to the area was scheduled to begin. Here too, much of the conversation we had was on the land, forests, animals and plants, and attempts to protect and nurture them.

Nigel D’Souza, the assistant manager at Goodricke Group’s Nonaipara tea estate in Assam, tells me about the company’s non-interference policy with animals. In a phone call, he explains that elephant corridors through the estate are kept clear, with men appointed as watchers keeping track of herd movements. It has reduced, he says, the conflict with humans.

A skilled photographer, D’Souza has been documenting wildlife at Nonaipara for over a decade. His documentation of snakes, for instance, has been invaluable in teaching people how to distinguish between venomous and non-venomous snakes. His colleague Niraj Mani Chourasia, who is now at the group’s Amgoorie estate, has also been documenting tea garden biodiversity and geo-tagging it on the iNaturalist app. It’s something they do in their spare time, and that means waking up at 4am on a Sunday. Sometimes it pays off, like the rare sighting of the Himalayan serow, a rare goat-like creature that popped up one day on Nonaipara.

In North Bengal’s Nuxalbari estate, Sonia Jabbar runs the Hathi Sathi programme in support of elephants, to increase awareness on how to live in harmony with pachyderms. She has introduced an afforestation programme, Rewilding Earth, and has set up a nursery to propagate local plant species.

These are just some of the stories. They remind me of something Bopana said of Craigmore: “We also produce tea.”

Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter. 

Also read | Taste the life of a tea planter

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