India is the world’s largest tea-producing country and accounts for 33% of global tea production. The expansion of tea plantations in India is fuelling mass deforestation and fragmenting the habitats of many mammalian species, not least of rare primates which are now on the brink of local extinction. Large forested areas have been deforested in order to grow more tea and forests are also threatened by frequent firewood collection to dry tea leaves.

Tea plantation on deforested land near Munnar, Kerala, in the Western Ghats. Photo credit: Mazur Travel / shutterstock

Primate species are experiencing severe habitat loss in the Assam region of India, (northeast) and Western Ghats (a mountain range spreading across a few states on the western coast). This not only involves a simple loss of canopy cover but also a reduction in canopy height, food tree availability and fragmentation of trees which negatively impacts primates that should be spending most of their time in trees (i.e. arboreal species). For instance, arboreal species, like the Lion-tail Macaque in Tamil Nadu, have seen a reduction in time spent in trees from 95.4% to 70.7% between the years of 1990 and 2000. It should then come as no surprise that the Lion-tailed Macaque is endangered, according to the IUCN red list.

The Lion-tail Macaque Photo credit: Dhritiman Mukherjee

As such, there are now several species spending a lot of time in tea gardens, secondary forests and human habitations. Sadly, many macaques are found on main highways or trying to steal food from human habitations, which they wouldn’t be doing if their food sources in forests were not threatened.

Every year, deforestation occurs to allow for the establishment of new tea plantations. However, there are ways in which consumers can help bring such deforestation to a halt, help plantation farmers understand how to better manage their land, and, in the process, help reduce the habitat loss of so many primates.

For instance, the Rainforest Alliance has training and certification programmes in India that help promote farming techniques that protect the land. They work with more than 850 tea estates, producing 15% of the country’s tea. Since 2014, the Rainforest Alliance’s new program prohibits deforestation, as well as the destruction of other ecosystems like wetlands and peatlands. Therefore, we can choose from tea brands that source from farms that are certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Another good choice would be to support tea brands that are certified organic.