In the Sundarbans, local communities harvest honey and protect tigers

Two people hold up a tray from a beehive full of bees

Life is not easy for most of the 4.5 million people living in the Sundarbans, the only coastal mangrove tiger habitat in the world, which runs from southern Bangladesh into India's West Bengal State. And for many, the mangrove forest is a crucial source of food and income.

“People in this area are always dependent on the forest and rivers,” said 72-year-old Basudev Barik, glancing up from the fishing net he was repairing. “It has a rich biodiversity. It’s not just a breeding ground for tigers.”

Growing economic pressures in the wake of COVID-19 and farms flooded with saline water during storms and cyclones are leaving them with few alternatives. On the face of it, life for people of the Sundarbans may seem simpler if they didn’t need to share the space with around 100 tigers. But there is growing awareness that tigers are essential for the protection of the ecosystem on which the people depend.

“If tigers weren’t there, people would destroy the forest by cutting down all its trees to earn a living,” said Mahua Pramanik, who is a mouli, or traditional wild honey collector, who used to travel into the forest with her family. “The environmental balance would be destroyed and we would face even worse damage from the storms.”

Pramanik and her husband are one of around 80 families involved in a honey cooperative that uses apiaries—or human-made beehives—placed in secure, netted areas on the edge of the forest. Collecting wild honey in the reserves leaves moulis vulnerable to tiger attacks, and approximately six honey collectors die each year in the Sundarbans due to human-tiger conflict.

“It’s much safer to do it this way, and the bees still collect pollen from the mangrove trees so the honey retains its high quality,” Pramanik said.

Not only this, but the project is also providing her with a better and more reliable source of income. “We are much better off than before, and I have got my kid admitted to a good school,” she said, smiling.

The honey cooperative, initially set up by WWF in partnership with the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve and Discovery Communications India, was supported by tiger conservation funding. Now that Pramanik’s family is directly benefiting from it, they are among those who support efforts to protect tigers in the area.

“I want to see more of these types of projects around here so that other people can also get a good life,” Pramanik said.

There is an inextricable connection between socio-economic development and conservation, particularly in the context of human-tiger coexistence. WWF’s aim is to have projects that are self-sustaining, and grow organically so that the communities are not reliant on outside funding. This takes extensive training and initial support, but, as the collective is showing, it is possible.

“We started as a small project,” Pramanik said in front of rows upon rows of jars full of the branded Bonphool honey. “But these days we are producing 45 tonnes of honey in just three months in the Sundarbans alone and we’ve scaled up to produce honey in three other regions of West Bengal. We’re even selling it online on our website and on Amazon.”