Looking beyond protected areas to conserve species in tea-garden terrains


  • In the tea-garden dominated landscape in West Bengal and Assam, elephants and leopards use a large part of the non-protected landscape but administrative conservation and management focus is restricted to a small patch of protected area in the region, a study has said.
  • Researchers have pressed for looking beyond protected areas and identifying conservation compatible landscapes in the agroforestry mosaic in the tea-garden shrouded landscape.
  • The study argues that the protected area network in developing nations will saturate in the near future and considerable biological diversity will persist outside the confines of these reserves.

Governments are gearing up to determine biodiversity targets for the next decade in 2020, a year dubbed as the make or break year for biodiversity. Meanwhile, disquiet prevails in a scenic, tea garden-dominated landscape in the Himalayan foothills in north-east India.

Earlier this month, a large number of people gathered in a tea garden in the Dooars, in the eastern Himalayan foothills, in north West Bengal, for a glimpse of four tuskers spotted ambling along in the area, prompting foresters to be on alert. A few months ago, in December 2019, in another tea garden estate, a leopard killed a 12-year-old girl and foresters reportedly sat inside cages with tranquiliser guns, acting as baits to capture the leopard. Last year in September (2019), a social media post that was widely shared and discussed showed an injured elephant, that had come under a train while crossing a railway track in north Bengal forest, trying to extricate itself.

Wildlife biologists studying the tea garden cloaked landscape in the states of West Bengal and Assam believe that despite the human-animal conflict narrative usually highlighted in these settings, such agro-forestry mosaics offer opportunities in scaling up conservation efforts outside protected areas.

“The information that comes out from tea gardens is usually negative, of conflicts. But by and large, these landscapes promote coexistence. The probability of a leopard or elephant injuring a tea garden worker is low. Maybe out of 365 days, 5 days are those days that can be attributed to negative encounters while during the rest of the year, they (human-animals) are coexisting,” wildlife biologist Aritra Kshettry, INSPIRE-Fellow, Department of Science and Technology, told Mongabay-India.

In a new study, Kshettry and co-authors have urgently pressed for looking beyond protected areas and identifying conservation compatible landscapes in the agroforestry mosaic, factoring in conservation opportunities of endangered and threatened wildlife, economic losses and human safety.

Explaining the basis for their proposal, Kshettry said though elephants and leopards require and use larger landscapes for survival, conservation actions are focused in only in small patches (protected areas) in the region studied.

The study area has a combined tea-plantation cover of 4000 square kilometres.

Flanked by the densely-forested foothills of the Himalayas in the north, the landscape is essentially a mosaic of tea-plantations interspersed between forest fragments of various sizes. These forest patches are in the form of protected areas such as the Jaldapara National Park and Buxa Tiger Reserve to the east and Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary to the west.

More than 30 human deaths and 100 injuries per year were caused by these two species (elephants and leopards) in that area alone. As per government’s own estimates, between 2016-17 and 2018-19 (till March 31, 2019), at least 1474 humans have lost their lives during such interactions in India. But deaths due to man-elephant conflict in the last three years (2016-2019) is on the decline it said. Between 2015 and December 31, 2018, as many as 746 pachyderms died from train accidents, electrocution, poaching and poisoning in the country, the Indian government has said.

Local communities gather to watch as elephants pass through tea gardens. Photo by Aritra Kshettry.

Conservation beyond protected areas

Kshettry sampled 1200 square km of non-protected forests in the tea-garden dominated Dooars terrain. This area includes tea plantation, villages and agricultural fields. He discovered that elephants are currently using 56 percent (680 square km) of this non-protected landscape but administrative conservation and management focus is restricted to the 88 square km protected area in the region.

“In our study area alone, the leopard used a 948 square km area (out of 1200 square km sampled area) which dwarfs the small 88 square km protected area currently assigned to leopard conservation and management,” said Kshettry, who is associated with Wildlife Conservation Society-India.

The study argues that the protected area network in developing nations will saturate in the near future and considerable biological diversity will persist outside the confines of these reserves.

“Protected areas such as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks cover approximately five percent of Indian terrestrial land. However, large, charismatic wildlife of high conservation priority such as elephants and leopards occupy areas much larger than these designated protected areas,” he said.

For example, approximately 80 percent of Asian elephant range in India falls outside the country’s protected area network. Hence, the study argues a case for the conservation of such species outside protected area networks via a much broader view of conservation than currently practised.

Acknowledging the landscape-based conservation approach that looks beyond protected areas, Ujjal Ghosh, chief conservator of forests, North Division, West Bengal, said that research data such as that published in Kshettry’s study enhances understanding of how different species use the tea garden-dominated landscapes in north Bengal for better management of forests.

“The north Bengal landscape is a mosaic of tea gardens, forest patches and revenue villages. Wildlife moves from one forest patch to another and because they are not contiguous landscapes so they move through non-forested areas such as tea gardens. This is where the run-ins between wild animals and humans occur. This is why we need data from studies in ascertaining the extent of movement, how different species use the landscape, so on and so forth,” Ghosh told Mongabay-India.

Elephants try to navigate avoiding human-use areas

Though elephants in primarily human-use areas have been traditionally defined in a conflict paradigm, Kshettry and co-authors found that elephants are also navigating human areas by actively avoiding human habitations while moving between the fragmented forest patches, in the study area.

“Results from this paper have also been corroborated with our observations from collared elephants in the region, as well as camera trap studies, that by and large, elephants have learned to negotiate a fragmented landscape by staying away from human habitations,” said Kshettry.

“Having said that, certain solitary bull elephants do regularly enter human habitations to gain nutritional benefit from crops and these encounters may negatively bias people against the presence of elephants in a region,” he explained.

Due to the available dense cover, tea gardens provide leopards with undisturbed hiding areas. Additionally, the tea estates also have significant domestic livestock which is easily accessible for leopards. Photo by Aritra Kshettry.

Ujjal Ghosh said while their work factors in the landscape in north Bengal, increasing wildlife and human populations have thrown up challenges in conservation. “There is an increase in populations of species such as elephants, rhinos, gaur and leopards in north Bengal. At the same time, we see increased human pressures in the form of expanding population and developmental activities,” said Ghosh.

The primary challenges to elephant and leopard persistence in these shared landscapes seem to be the high levels of human injuries and casualties, observed Kshettry. Crop damage by elephants is also a major concern.

Research suggests that these incidents are accidental in nature when people and leopards accidentally come face to face in the close confines of tea-bushes, leading to injuries to the tea-plantation workers. Due to the available dense cover, tea gardens provide them with undisturbed hiding areas. Additionally, the tea estates also have significant domestic livestock which is easily accessible for leopards.

“Devising measures to reduce such interactions (encounters between humans and animals) is key. Much of the human casualty occurs because people are not adopting safety practises while going about their daily work in the tea estates. So we encourage people to make noise, burst crackers to scare off the leopards. However, it is difficult to institutionalise such processes because they require behavioural change and take time,” said Kshettry.

“And negative encounters due to elephants primarily occur when people are in an inebriated state. So this again needs social and behavioural change,” he added.

Crop insurance to deal with elephant raids

The study also discusses measures to deal with crop losses from elephant raids. Crop insurance programmes may be planned by conservation organisations working in the area and infrastructure inputs such as solar fences and solar lights may be installed with financial support from the district administration and relevant state welfare schemes, it states.

“The forest department in North Bengal is taking good steps in collaboration with local NGOs and tea garden owners to minimise the negative encounters in this landscape,” said Kshettry.

According to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, water and fodder augmentation under Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds have been undertaken.

The conservation compatible landscape concept attempts to highlight the full extent of our potential to conserve our native wildlife and the environment at large and factors in existing laws.

“For example, the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 is a very strong legislation which protects wildlife species across their range irrespective of land ownership. Such laws, in congruence with the Forest Rights Act and Biodiversity Act, may pave the way for a new paradigm in conservation which focuses on coexistence rather than conflict as the prime agenda,” said Kshettry.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in its recently-released draft proposal outlining the 2030 targets for biodiversity protection, emphasises on protected areas and area-based conservation measures. This zero draft proposes that at least 60 percent of important sites that have “particular importance for biodiversity through protected areas and other effective area-based conservation” measures, be protected by 2030. It calls for protection of at least 30 percent of land and sea areas with at least 10 percent under strict protection by 2030.

That proposal will go before the summit of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in China this October, where governments will hash out a framework for biodiversity protection over the coming decade, replacing the 2020 Aichi targets.

Communities in north Bengal discuss the human safety angle to promote peaceful coexistence. Photo by Aritra Kshettry.


Kshettry, A., Vaidyanathan, S., Sukumar, R., & Athreya, V. (2020). Looking beyond protected areas: Identifying conservation compatible landscapes in agro-forest mosaics in north-eastern India. Global Ecology and Conservation, e00905.

Banner image: A herd of elephants passing through a tea garden dominated landscape in north Bengal. Photo by Aritra Kshettry


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