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Based on reporting by KASSIA WORDLEY and TANMOY BHADURI.
Crouching down, a mouli (Bengali for “honey collector”) checks a beehive frame in an apiary belonging to the Bonphool Honey Collective in India. The air around him hums as bees buzz through the rows of apiary boxes; he vents a puff of smoke from a tin can to calm them while he works.
Four years ago, moulis working with the collective might have been standing knee-deep in mud in a dense mangrove forest—a bastion for tigers—instead of this safe spot near a mustard field. Traditionally, moulis have harvested honey from wild beehives deep in the Sundarbans, a coastal mangrove forest stretching from southern Bangladesh to West Bengal in India. But communities in the region are seeking to establish safer practices, away from tiger territory. Although tigers have been known to leave the mangroves in search of prey—and both people and tigers have been killed as a result—honey collecting in the tiger’s mangrove habitat is the greater risk.
So, in 2018, WWF-India partnered with the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve Directorate to supply apiary boxes to licensed local honey collectors in the Sundarbans, with the hopes of generating livelihoods and minimizing human-tiger conflict. Since then, honey collectors consistently harvesting from these enclosed areas have not experienced human-tiger conflict, and honey production has increased.
The work requires traversing the mangroves in search of wild beehives, lighting a fire at the base of a tree so the smoke calms the bees overhead, then breaking open the hive to collect its honey.
In addition to encountering the tigers that swim between mangrove islands, moulis may experience severe storms and other threats as they attempt to make their living. So they begin their task with a chant to Ma Bonbibi, a guardian spirit recognized by many local people who rely on the forest for their livelihood. They ask the deity for protection from tiger attacks as they make their way into the mangroves.
“This is our life,” Mahua Pramanik says. “Here in the Sundarbans, we people live together with tigers.”
“Now we are doing well,” Pramanik says. “We are making profits, and we do not have to risk our lives, because it is much safer ... to install boxes and collect honey from them.” The moulis can achieve a much higher yield through this method, producing over 60 tons of honey in a three-month period in the Sundarbans alone. So far, around 80 moulis have been trained and are collecting honey from 1,400 apiary boxes across the Sundarbans and nearby areas like Nadia.
Traditionally, honey collection was seasonal work in the Sundarbans, as wild bees produce honey only when the mangroves are in bloom. But the moulis can now extend their collection period by transporting their apiary boxes to agricultural areas in West Bengal, where bees pollinate lychee, mustard, and coriander fields.
The moulis have formed several cooperatives in and around the Sundarbans, three of which sell their honey under the brand name Bonphool Wild Honey. The brand is now available online within India, and the moulis are hoping to sell honey internationally as well.
Though honey is often used as a home remedy for illness in India, which has made it a valuable commodity during the pandemic, supply chain issues and reduced demand in recent times have created an unexpected problem: a honey surplus. Bhonpool has thousands of jars waiting to be sold.
Pramanik and other moulis now need help developing a strategy for tapping into new markets. And so the work of adaptation to changing circumstances continues.
Honey initiatives are just one way WWF is helping people in tiger landscapes cope with the many challenges they face. Learn more about WWF’s work to help people and wildlife coexist.