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Hathikuli Goes Organic

Darkness was yet to descend. In the last few minutes of daylight, Rajesh and I searched for spiders along the edges of the tea garden when the phone rang and the manager on the line informed us of a king cobra that had entered the factory area. More likely a rat snake, was our first thought. Rushing to the spot, we saw a crowd gathered around a tall machine covered with a polythene sheet.

Established in 1907, the Hathikuli Tea Estate has chosen to go organic. Apart from producing a safer end product, the objective is to reduce the direct and indirect impacts of pesticides on downstream Kaziranga. Credit:Rajesh Sanap

At first we waited at the back of the gathered crowd, finding it difficult to push our way to the front. A local snake rescuer was on the way we were told. On his arrival, he very wisely asked the crowd to keep their distance, then lifted part of the polythene sheet. We finally got a glimpse of the snake’s head. It was indeed a king cobra. Nothing could have better underscored the fact that we were in a tea estate on the very edge of the incredible Kaziranga National Park.

Tea estates evoke images of green plantation lands in the far Northeast or in South India, with lines of hardworking women plucking and then depositing leaves in baskets on their backs. Few people actually consider the fact that most plantations were carved out of forest land, or forest corridors because with every passing year, they end up harbouring less and less biodiversity since they are ‘carpet bombed’ with pesticides designed to allow only an intensive monoculture of tea bushes to survive.  Large mammals and other wildlife are hardly what one associates with a tea estate, so when Sanctuary Asia asked us to undertake a rapid biodiversity survey of a tea estate called the Hathikuli Tea Estate in Assam, we were more than a little puzzled – did we hear it right?

Within minutes we were Googling Hathikuli. The estate belonged to Amalgamated Plantations Pvt. Ltd. (APPL), one of the largest producers of tea in the country. Of its 24 tea estates in the Northeast, one of them, historic Hathikuli, had been established in 1907. And then the full story began to emerge.

The management, it seemed, had taken on an ambitious goal – to turn certified organic! Our interest more than casually piqued, we discovered that Hathikulil’s conversion to organic began in 2007 and was finally completed in March 2011. What made this conversion all the more fascinating and significant was the fact that the Hathikuli Tea Estate shared a boundary with the World Heritage Site of Kaziranga National Park, and the Karbi Anglong Hills.

It took us just five minutes to confirm that we would like to get to Hathikuli double quick and start work!

The presence of predators indicates the health of most ecosystems and tea estates are no different. This Asian Barred Owlet Glaucidium cuculoides. Credit:Rajesh Sanap

Both of us are self-taught naturalists studying for our Masters. Our primary goal over the next few days was to read up every scrap of information we could on tea estates, their impact on biodiversity, the impact of biodiversity on the plantation and, of course, the Hathikuli saga (for that is what it was) itself.

The fundamental objective of the conversion to organic, we discovered, was born of a vision that suggested that chemical agriculture and toxic solutions for plantations would necessarily be phased out in the decades ahead. Hathikuli had started out organic (chemical pesticides were only discovered as a result of chemical warfare research post World War II), then shifted to toxic chemicals in the 1970s following global and national trends. Over the decades, this had an adverse impact on soils… and pesticide residues in the finished tea product had also begun to pose problems.

The decision to go fully organic was taken, but this was not easy. To begin with, it was clear that output would initially fall, but this would be compensated by igher per kg. yields. A slew of projections and debates nsued. When all the counting was done, what triggered the final decision was the fact that the transition would immensely benefit Kaziranga, a World Heritage Site, by sparing it from toxic contamination.

The lay of the land

The massive 479.57 ha. Hathikuli estate has three divisions – Hathikuli, Rangajan and Deering. The plantation runs along a narrow strip of land, stretching almost 12 km. along the National Highway 37. The name ‘Hathikuli’ is derived from the Assamese word ‘hati’ (elephant) and ‘kuli’ (frequent)... a place frequented by elephants. The estate was always unique, drawing large number of visitors to Kaziranga who were welcomed by the Hathikuli management, which always encouraged ‘tea tourism’ to their estate and factory, of which they were justifiably proud. Today, in our view, they have even more to be gratified about – the Hathikuli Tea Estate has become the largest organic plantation of its kind in Asia.

It was to help establish the positive effect of a reconversion to organic practices on the biodiversity that Sanctuary asked us to undertake this rapid survey. Our brief was to conduct two surveys, pre-monsoon, which has been completed and is being reported here, and post-monsoon, which will be in progress as you read this.

The tarantula Lyrognathus crotalus are performing a vital pest control service for the Hathikuli estate where a functioning ecological balance has helped the management to secure “organic certification” for their teas. Credit:Zeeshan Mirza

Our task was to observe and document the diversity of secondary predators in the tea estate and their role in controlling prey species, which are the ‘pest’ that chemical pesticides seek to ‘deal with’. We were also asked to establish the presence-absence of other interdependent fauna, and to compare the biodiversity of Hathikuli’s organic plantation to that of a comparable chemical plantation in the area.

Even our rudimentary investigations, we knew, might help tweak Hathikuli’s management plan to make the estate more native-predator-friendly. This in turn would have a positive effect by helping control insects and other lifeforms that impacted tea bushes, leaves and soils.

A very telling aspect of our survey, when it is completed and analysed by October 2012, will be a comparison of the species list of Hathikuli with secondary predators found in Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong.

Where is Hathikuli?

Northeast India, an important part of the Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot, supports some of the biologically richest areas in the world, which affords it recognition as an area of global importance. Today, the forest cover in this region is merely one third of its geographical area, and the rate of habitat loss here is of serious concern. The low to mid-elevation moist forests of this region are particularly important, as they not only support most of its biological diversity, but are also more vulnerable to human exploitation and settlement due their relatively easier access. Despite its importance, this region has remained poorly explored, and all evidence suggests that much of the region’s diversity is being lost without even being recorded. A serious problem that hinders effective prioritisation and evaluation for site-specific conservation attention is the lack of baseline biological data.

The Hathikuli Tea Estate is located in Assam in Golaghat District (26035’0.50”N, 93021’12.40”E, elevation 88 m.). It comprises 4.80 sq. km. of area having three divisions i.e. – Hathikuli Division, Rangajan Division and Deering Division. The plantation runs along a narrow strip of land but stretches for 12 km. along the National Highway 37. The climate is tropical with humid weather prevailing most of the summer and monsoon months. The total average annual rainfall is 1,300 mm. Maximum precipitation occurs in June and July. Maximum temperature is 38.00C in June and minimum temperature is 8.00C in December.

A Hathikuli snapshot

What follows is a very brief overview of our 10-day pre-monsoon survey, completed between May 4 and 15, 2012.

We conducted morning, evening and night trails (with armed guards, given the unrest in the area) to document species. We did use flash lights in the periphery of the tea estate, but sparingly, since militancy in the Karbi Anglong area was always uppermost in our minds. For this survey no species were collected. All we did was photograph them on location with notes that would help us identify them later. The greater part of our study was conducted in the Hathikuli division. But we also studied the high resolution photographs taken by local rescuers and included them in our checklist if positive identification was possible after referring to taxa specific literature.

Amongst the many creatures recorded at Hathikuli during the Sanctuary Rapid Biodiversity Survey, this colourful lanternfl y (Family: Fulgoridae) was a show stealer. A plant hopper, it functions by sucking nutrients from plants. Ants, which are voracious predators, are attracted to the nutritious liquid excreted by lanternfl ies, even as they prey on several of Hathikuli’s other pests such as Helopeltis. Credit:Rajesh Sanap

We spotted five species of mammals – the Himalayan palm civet, the Indian palm squirrel, capped langur, common muntjac, and the Rhesus macaque. Hathikuli’s true wealth, however, manifested itself in the shape and form of little life forms – birds, butterflies, beetles and dragonflies. With Rajesh’s particular interest in tarantulas, not surprisingly, within hours of our arrival, we had located one.

We looked at the burrow, located under a tea bush along a mud drain and saw the thick web lining. A tickle with a grass blade and the owner came out of the burrow to investigate. It was a medium-sized tarantula, heavily clothed with black hair – a female Lyrognathus crotalus, a species common in Northeast India. Tarantulas are large hairy spiders that live much longer than other spider species and they spend virtually all their life in a single burrow making them invaluable bio-indicators. Monitoring a single individual over an extended period of time is a relatively easy task and we found ourselves very encouraged because the presence of tarantulas on the estate was a good sign since that surely meant that a variety of prey species existed to support the voracious predator.

That spiders were plentiful in Hathikuli was evident from even our initial, cursory, walks. From the wolf spider to the tarantula, lynx spider, giant crab spider, orb web spider, nursery web spider, straw spider, signature spider and the common garden spider...  these ‘pest controllers’ were busy at work. Night surveys proved to be even more exciting (and considerably easier) as numerous insects would cluster around the lamp posts right next to the Manager’s Bungalow (a heritage structure). This provided us with opportunities to observe predators in action. We saw several robberflies, 41 butterfly and 11 dragonfly species.

The last named must surely be called the hawks of the insect world. Dragonflies are a delight to watch as they flit gracefully over waterbodies, then come to rest at fixed perches after chasing intruders or grabbing prey on the wing. Dragonflies lay their eggs in water and their larvae too are voracious predators, devouring almost anything they can overpower. This makes them biological pest controllers par excellence. Their inter-specific relationships are also fascinating. At one of the ponds in the tea estate we found seven species including the marsh hawk, ruddy marsh skimmer, crimson marsh glider, ditch jewel, picture wing, clubtail and hooktail, plus some damselflies.

One afternoon, we spotted a large dragonfly that would not settle like the others. It kept circling the pond, pausing mid-air and then, suddenly, and at great speed, it would tap the water surface and then resume the process of circling the pond. We had not observed this behaviour before, and look forward to discussing it with experts.

A sub-adult capped langur Trachypithecus pileatus gorges on nutritious fi cus fruit. Leaf eaters, the presence of these primates on the estate is a clear sign of a recovering ecosystem and is very positive to the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve. Credit:Rajesh Sanap

Hathikuli is also visited by many birds, ranging from the Rufous Treepie, Black-hooded Oriole, Oriental Turtle Dove, Yellow Wagtail, White-cheeked Bulbul, White-throated Kingfisher, Black Drongo, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Jungle Myna, Black-rumped Flameback, Red-breasted Parakeet, Asian Barred Owlet, Red-vented Bulbul, Indian Cuckoo and more. The forest of the Karbi Anglong hills were lush green and dense, despite the fact that ours was a pre-monsoon survey. We were sorely tempted to venture deep inside this area, but were advised not to for security reasons. Often both of us would walk in different directions to cover more ground and thus increase our sightings tally.

Reptiles are undoubtedly key predators and must be counted as very positive to an organic estate. We saw garden lizards, geckos, southern house geckos, worm snakes, common wolf snakes, red-necked keelbacks, banded kraits, monocled cobras and, that one large king cobra we described above.

Mosquito bug Helopeltis

(Miridae: Heteroptera)

This insect pest occurs widely in the foothills and the plains and mainly attacks tea and weeds growing in tea areas. Adults are quick but not strong fliers. Females are bigger than the males. The species has prominent eyes and a small drumstick like process that stands vertically on the upper side. It has black wings and head and long antennae. Nymphs and adults are more visible in early and late hours of the day and take shelter under tea leaves specially in the lower frame during day time or when disturbed. One individual usually completes its life cycle on a single bush. Damage of tea shoots and young leaves occurs due to the insertion of its eggs primarily in the buds, followed by shoots and the young leaves and their petioles. Severe damage occurs due to intensive feeding by all the stages and due to chemical reaction within the leaf resulting from feeding punctures and extra-oral digestion. The feeding spots develop a watermarked area, which turn circular and pale green and subsequently dark brown within hours of feeding. The circular area later becomes dark brown and when dried up, a hole develops. The toxic reaction of feeding often results in the curling and deformity of leaves. As a consequence, the shoot is retarded. Chemical control at recommended doses is becoming increasingly difficult. Helopeltis are predated by Oxyopes sp. (lynx spider), other spiders, dragonflies and robber flies.

Lessons to be learnt

Climate change is an issue that all tea estates and plantations will need to come to terms with. One response could be to carpet-bomb plantations with toxic chemicals in response to the new and hardy vectors and pests that emerge thanks to altered humidity and temperatures. The other option would be to follow the Hathikuli Tea Estate experience, which could be replicated across the country. This is because in nature’s scheme of things, predator and prey have always worked out their own balance, which is what they will do in response to climate-induced ecological changes too.

Because pesticides ‘do not know how to stop killing’ they end up wiping out predators, leaving the field open to pests that come back in larger numbers, with greater resistance to applied toxins. This is a lose-lose situation that will also inevitably cause costs to escalate, even as educated consumer resistance to pesticide grows.

Clearly, no new plantations should be allowed in wildlife corridors or habitats. And where they already exist, the working plans should be adapted, taking a cue from the Hathikuli Tea Estate, to rebuild predator-prey balance, which will end up with a safer end product, capable of fetching a higher monetary yield per kg. Prolima garažo vartai, šiltos durys, balkonų stiklinimas plastikiniai langai Vilniuje

As for Kaziranga, the fact that chemicals will not leach into its wetlands from Hathikuli should be celebrated by all those who would like to see this rhino, tiger, elephant and wild buffalo habitat survive well into the future. Quite apart from such megafauna, this natural wonderland is also home to over 470 species of birds, making it one of India’s most vital Important Bird Areas. As we prepare to return for our post-monsoon Hathikuli survey, we eagerly anticipate even more diverse sightings of native biodiversity. Sanctuary Asia will also work with the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam and the National Tiger Conservation Authority to analyse the results of this rapid survey, including new investigations on soil micro fauna/flora, so crucial not only to the growth of tea bushes, but also, that perfect predator-prey balance in nature that any organic estate aspires to emulate.

This lynx spider is a voracious arthropod. Ever since Hathikuli has gone organic, spiders have been recognised as a strike strategy to keep tea pest populations under control. Encouraging a diversity of spiders to fl ourish will be a key objective of the estate management. Credit:Zeeshan Mirza

One of the most serious issues facing tea estates today is how to deal with pests such as Helopeltis sp. (a bug), which we will especially focus on in our post-monsoon survey. We are acutely aware that withdrawing chemical applications have initially resulted in lower physical tea yields. But yields have started to rise thanks to improved soil health and the fact that money is not being spent on toxic chemicals, and the per kg. recovery of organic tea is higher… Hathikuli’s economic horizons look bright.

The fact is that Hathikuli has already negotiated the most difficult period of transition. In the months and years ahead, with every rise in the population and diversity of secondary predators, tea productivity (and the estate’s profit graph) must correspondingly rise. One key strategy will be to establish ‘sanctuaries’ within the estate that offer refuge to predators such as spiders, dragonflies, butterflies, snakes and lizards.

What is wonderful is that Hathikuli’s organic adventure will greatly benefit the wildlife of Kaziranga, not just because of the biodiversity that rises on the estate, but because of the long-term benefits from reduced bioaccumulation risks in the national park. What we would like to monitor very carefully now is the return of secondary predators to the most recently converted estate land. As naturalists we can safely assume that the biodiversity lists in these areas will rise with the passage of time, but this return must be documented and the survey results peer reviewed, so that the experience can be reliably shared and replicated across the country.

A better understanding of the ecological cycle in Hathikuli is vital to Kaziranga itself. In our view the Hathikuli management should work closely with the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam and the Director of the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve. Apart from shade trees, which do offer refuge to bird and other life forms, Hathikuli would need to set aside small unplanted parts of the estate where wild flora and fauna should be encouraged to return.  Such refuges for  natural predators, will for instance enable native ant species to nest.  And if this does not automatically happen, no harm would be done by considering the option of artificially culturing native ant species, which will help tackle the Helopeltis bugs whose eggs the ants consume.

Similarly the larvae of predatory beetles and praying mantis species may be cultured to play a role in natural pest control. Other logical steps would be to manage the drainage channels across the entire estate so as to protect tarantula spiders and their burrows, which are damaged or destroyed when deepening or otherwise maintaining drainage systems.

As young naturalists who are involved in the study and observation of secondary predators, we look forward with excitement to the adventures ahead of us.

For the detailed butterfly and dragonfly checklist go to www.sanctuaryasia.com.

Going Organic

The Hathikuli Tea Estate started its organic conversion in 2007.

  • In 2007, it was decided to convert 161.23 ha. area (Only Hathikuli division) to organic farming.
  • In 2008, the entire estate under tea (479.57 ha.) was taken up for organic conversion.
  • In March 2010, Organic Certification was received for 161.23 ha. area.
  • In March 2011, the whole Estate along with the production and processing unit was certified as fully organic under the standards of NPOP, NOP and EEC.
  • In September 2011, the estate has been able to receive JAS certification – the Japanese standards.  

OneCert Asia is the certifying body for Hathikuli T.E. OneCert is accredited by APEDA (Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) under NPOP (National Programme for Organic Production).

Editor’s postscript

Conventional wisdom suggests that tiger reserves and other Protected Areas have little option but to change the working relationship with lands that abut their boundaries. This must necessarily involve and engage those who own or occupy such ‘buffer’ areas. In the case of farmers, the objective would be to either encourage them to opt for organic agriculture, or turn farms to forests… become ecosystem farmers who benefit from biodiversity. In the case of commercial plantations such as the Hathikuli Tea Estate, the transition from chemical to organic farming should be fuelled by tax and other incentives and subsidies that would be infinitely more beneficial to India than the fossil energy, fertiliser and toxic chemical subsidies currently in favour.

This monocled cobra Naja kaouthia is a nocturnal predator. The reptile is often seen in and around old growth trees in whose boles rodents abound. When confronted with danger the snakes will raise the bodies, spread their hoods and hiss loudly. At such times they can be quite aggressive and will lunge to bite and even spit venom. Credit:Rajesh Sanap

A Sanctuary Asia Rapid Biodiversity Survey by Zeeshan A. Mirza and Rajesh V. Sanap, Vol XXXII No. 4, August 2012


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