May 2017

Road to resolution

Tata Coffee has created a roadmap to reduce the conflict between humans and elephants to protect the animals, the workers as well as the plantations

The Western Ghats are home to more than just green plantations and coffee-scented air. Apart from being the centrepiece of Tata Coffee’s national plantation spread, the region also serves as one of the largest elephant biospheres in India.

From left: K S Machaiah; Karthik K; A M Chittiappa, Tata Coffee; Tina Brennan, operational readiness project director - GMS regional pharma supply, GSK, Vemgal; and Gopal Subramanyam, former CEO, L&T Komatsu

Over the years, the Western Ghats have been witness to increasing human-wildlife conflict. To embrace the elephant population and promote habitat conservation, Tata Coffee has launched an array of initiatives to bolster sustainability and create value for every stakeholder, human or animal.  

The elephant migration
Over the decades, there has been a gentle and gradual migration of elephants into the Western Ghats. In the 1980s, elephant incursions into Tata Coffee’s plantations were few and far between. Even if elephants did stray across the boundary, they would typically return to the forest by the next morning. However, with the advent of deforestation and climatic shifts, the 1990s and 2000s saw elephants routinely foraying into the plantations, with many choosing to nest there permanently. By 2010, a new generation of elephants had been birthed inside the plantations.

The human-elephant conflict
The permanent nesting of the wild elephants in Tata Coffee’s estate posed severe dangers to workers at the Tata Coffee plantations. There were several fatalities, and the possibility of attacks led to productivity loss and mental trauma among the grassroots workforce. In addition to that, the knowledge that rogue elephants could vanquish years of cultivation in seconds threatened the overall agricultural landscape in the region. As these factors were spotlighted, a dedicated team spearheaded by A M Chittiappa, head of safety at Tata Coffee, was formed to propel a robust roadmap to protect plantations by returning these elephants to their natural habitat.

The roadmap to combat elephant incursions
The elephant relocation roadmap that was followed has seen encouraging results. These are the stages that were followed.

Stage 1: Formation of wildlife cell
At the outset, Tata Coffee collaborated with certain organisations such as Indian Institute of Science, Pondicherry University and NGOs. Additionally, a wildlife cell was established to provide a singular focus and direction for the project.

Stage 2: Clear mapping of conflict zones
By geographically shading the zones that witnessed the most human-animal conflicts, the safety team could offer workers a safer way to navigate through the plantations.

Stage 3: Infrastructural and people interventions
The elephant relocation roadmap was a mix of infrastructural and human interventions. A slew of infrastructural upgrades were implemented: barriers such as trenches and rail track barricades were built, solar-powered fences were constructed and fortified, and observatory towers were erected. Also, blind spots on roads were eradicated and jackfruit trees, which acted as lures for elephants, were eliminated entirely from plantations. As far as people interventions went, extensive training programmes were conducted, SMS and FM broadcast systems were implemented and periodic mock drills were carried out. Process automation was also effected, reducing the need for human deployment in remote parts of the plantation.

Slow but steady efforts of shifting elephants to their natural habitat are reaping results

Key measures of success
With as many as 113 trainings, 45,330 training hours and 65 meetings with forest officials, the project has enjoyed good progress and is on the cusp of a new journey. From 827 elephant intrusions in 2013-14 to 711 in 2016-17, the progress has been quantifiable and tangible. Between 2014 and 2017, nine rogue elephants have been captured from conflict hotspots and moved to elephant rescue camps.

The effect of these efforts is visible. Tata Coffee has been awarded the Excellence in Work Place Safety trophy for its elephant conservation project in the CII IQ National Safety Competition. Today, there are still approximately 60 elephants that continue to live in the plantations owned by Tata Coffee, and continual efforts are being made, in collaboration with government agencies, to relocate this tiny population to the forest.

The way forward
While the effort to shift elephants back to their natural habitat has already reaped results, the last mile of the project is still underway. An external audit team has been appointed, dialogues with government departments are being pursued and higher levels of emergency preparedness are being implemented. A series of technological tools, including infrared sensors and walkie-talkies, are also being added to the project quiver. Having addressed the elephant in the room, the Tata Coffee community is now growing safer and stronger.