Is Your Cup of Coffee Killing Elephants? New Documentary Examines Conflict Between Endangered Elephants and Farmers in Southern India


Reena Rathore, IndiaWest

Date Published

See link for photos & the documentary’s trailer.

Is your cup of coffee killing elephants? This may sound like a strange question, but it’s a reality for the growing coffee industry in India.

A new documentary by duPont-Columbia Award-winning journalist Thomas Grant and Kansas-based Indian American author and photographer D.K. Bhaskar, “Elephants in the Coffee,” offers a look into how the growth of coffee plantations in southern India has led to deadly conflicts between humans and elephants.

With hundreds of people and dozens of elephants dying each year, the film explores the question of whether farmers can co-exist with this endangered animal.

And those conflicts are now forcing the world’s largest land mammal into the world’s largest cages.

The documentary goes on to show how India has turned to an unusual experiment to try to resolve the conflict.

The once-nomadic Jenu Kuruba tribesmen have been called upon to create permanent camps on national forest lands. Troublesome elephants are captured and imprisoned in giant wooden cages. There, the elephants are forced to submit to Jenu Kuruba mahouts or elephant trainers, who will be paid by the government to care for the animals for the rest of their lives — often for 60 to 80 years.

The inspiration for this documentary, which has been shot mostly around Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka, and the coffee estates around it, Grant said, came when he visited these forest elephant camps in 2014.

“We learned that the expansion of farming, particularly coffee plantations, has led to conflicts between endangered elephants and humans. The elephants were accused of killing people in a nearby agricultural area,” he said. “In fact, more than 100 people are killed by elephants each year in India. And in turn the elephants are either captured and caged, or killed as well. Few people in the Western world are even aware of the problem.”

The film is produced by CLIC Abroad, a non-profit group founded by Bhaskar. The organization is a cultural exchange program, which uses photography to connect students from the U.S. and India. The film is co-produced by Grant, a professor of journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia.

Grant and his team of students spoke to farmers of large and small coffee estates, including Tata Plantation, the largest coffee farming operation in India that has a joint agreement with Starbucks. 

The film explores the problem in depth, and talks to experts about sustainable solutions to reduce the human-elephant conflict.

“Our coffee comes from a complex ecosystem and resolving these issues will require concerted effort from inside India, and from abroad,” said Grant. “We believe Starbucks, which is committed to environmentally sound practices, could take a leading role in trying to develop elephant-safe coffee.”

With CLIC Abroad, Grant is working toward creating an elephant education center near the national park in India that could help work toward that coexistence. 

“Elephants in the Coffee” won the ‘Best Documentary’ award at the Doc Sunback Film Festival in Kansas, ‘Best Documentary’ award at the Black Cat Picture Show Film Festival in Georgia, and has been selected by film festivals around the world, including the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival to be held in New York City in October 2017.

The documentary film is available for community screenings and fundraisers.

Watch the trailer of “Elephants in the Coffee” here.