From time immemorial, people from the villages of Sunderbans have been venturing into the dense mangrove forest inhabited by the Royal Bengal Tiger to collect the sweetest produce of the forest, honey.
Maulis (honey collectors), as they are called in Bengali, often risk their lives in the peak season to collect honey, armed with nothing but a prayer to Bon Bibi ( the Forest Goddess). Going by the official estimates, at least five to six of these honey collectors (official figures) are killed by tigers every year.
In an attempt to ensure that the honey collected from the Sunderbans does not involve such life risk, Directorate of Forest 24 Parganas (South), along with WWF India, has come up with a novel mechanism of community apiculture for collecting the forest produce.
The villagers of the fringe areas of Sunderbans have set up three cooperatives societies, the members of which have been provided with training and equipment, such as honey collection boxes. These boxes are placed inside forest camps and adjoining nylon netted forest areas of the Sunderbans. Though located deep inside the mangrove forest, the camps and the adjoning areas have little risk of tiger attacks and the maulis can go about their activity without any fear
“The project was inaugurated by State’s Forest Minster Rajib Banerjee earlier this week. As of now, there are 70 members in the three cooperatives, who are involved in the community apilculture initiative. We are very hopeful that the number will increase in times to come,” Santosha G.R. Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), 24 Parganas (South) told The Hindu .
The cooperative societies located at Jharkhali, Kultali and Nalgora have been provided financial support in the form of loans. The State's Panchayat and Rural Development, Department has facilitated the process of securing these loans by these coperative. The initiative is not only aimed at protecting the lives of honey collectors but also aimed at ensuring the ecological balance of the Sunderbans.
Ratul Saha, landscape coordinator, WWF India, said that necessary pilot studies were done over the past few years as to how many boxes can be kept in a particular area. On the basis of the results, the project is being implemented.
The peak season for collection of Sunderban honey obtained from the nectar of the mangrove plants is begings in March and ends in the first week of June. Unlike the traditional practice of collecting honey, where those who risk their lives by venturing into the forest do not get much in return, the members of the cooperative are hopeful that they will be able to earn ₹ 20,000 a month.
The Forest Department has created a separate brand for selling this honey named Bonphool (Flower of the Forest). The honey extracted from mangrove forest will be called Bonphool Wild Honey — harvested from traditional honey collectors from mangrove forest of Sunderbans.
After June the boxes will travel to south Bengal forest, where the cooperatives will collect honey from Eucalyptus plantations. There are plans to sell the Bonphool through the Biswa Bangla, the State government's outlets.
14 % of tiger attacks
Human tiger conflict is a major issue in the Sunderbans. In the State of Art Report on the Biodiversity of Sunderbans, released by WWF India in 2017, Chandan Surabhi Das points out that between 1985 to 2009, tigers attacked 789 persons, of which 666 succumbed to their injuries. Nearly 14% of the victims were honey collectors, the document added. While the number of human-tiger conflict have come down over the last few years because of better forest management and nylon fencing, instances of such tiger attacks are still reported.