WASHINGTON — There’s more to consider than skim milk versus soy the next time you’re waiting in line for a latte. Your cup of coffee could come at the expense of an elephant.
Tom Grant, a journalism professor at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and director of the documentary “Elephants in the Coffee,” said in the last 30 years, India’s coffee industry has doubled. As a result, coffee plantations have taken over the natural habitats of many animals, including elephants.
“We were seeing more and more elephants forced into captivity, forced into chains, as one solution to try to keep them away from harming people or harming crops in these coffee plantations,” said Grant, who first became aware of the issue on a trip to Southern India in 2012.
Conflict between agriculture and wildlife is not new or unique to India. Elephants see coffee plantations as forests — they find water, shade and food there, Grant said. They also find fear.
“The main problem is, they’re big critters and they scare people, ”Grant said.
Workers often flee or try to scare off the elephants with guns or fireworks when they’re spotted in a coffee plantation. The danger comes when an elephant gets spooked. They can charge humans, even kill them. In fact, 300 people a year get killed by elephants in India.
“They crash through everything,” Grant said. “As we change their habitat, we force them into proximity with people, and that’s where the problem comes.”
The growing presence of elephants in coffee estates has prompted some farms to capture and chain the large mammals. Grant, however, says this is not the answer — especially in a country where elephants were once revered as gods.
“It’s not the elephants that are dangerous as much as we have changed the landscape in which they have lived, and we need to do something to try and make it possible for people and farmers and elephants to use that land altogether so that nobody gets killed,” Grant said.
Major coffee companies such as Starbucks and Tata have instituted practices on their farms that move toward coexistence. Their workers monitor elephants and move around them as they come through the plantations.
“When the elephants are in one sector, they warn all the workers through text messages, and then move the workers to another area,” Grant said.
However, smaller estates can’t always adopt this practice. In these instances, Grant would like to see the large coffee companies and the Indian government step in and help train the workers in more peaceful practices.
Grant, a coffee drinker, says he’s not going to stop drinking coffee — even after witnessing the elephant torture. But he hopes his film raises awareness around the issue and ignites change with how animals are treated around the world.
“The coffee growers aren’t to blame for what’s happening to elephants right now. It’s really our lack of understanding that’s to blame. So we have to find ways to work with the coffee industry to make sure that the things we love, like wildlife, like elephants, can be preserved even though we’re actively farming these areas,” Grant said.
“Every cup of coffee we consume comes at some cost to the environment and to the wildlife that lives in the environment. In this particular case, it happens to be elephants. If we work toward better ways of monitoring elephants, we can have both our coffee and our elephants.”
“Elephants in the Coffee” is showing at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York on Oct. 21. You can watch the trailer and find other showings on the film’s website.