In the Indian Sundarbans, around 6 traditional honey collectors lose their lives to wild tigers every year. This project is changing that.
The Sundarban islands are home to the world’s largest mangrove forests. With around 10,000 square kilometres sprawling the Bay of Bengal across India and Bangladesh, this is a unique and ecologically important landscape.
At around 1064 people per square kilometre, the Sundarbans are home to one of the highest human population densities in the world, but life here is exceptionally challenging. Vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather; both people and wildlife must be creative in order to survive.
For tigers living in the Sundarbans, survival means swimming from island to island in search of scarce, hard to find prey. When people from local communities venture deep into the forest to gather their own sustenance; from honey to fish and wood for charcoal, they may fall victim to the hunting tigers.
This unique set of circumstances has made the Sundarbans a global hotspot for human tiger conflict.
Shockingly, on the Indian side of the Sundarbans, traditional honey collectors or moulis constitute over a third of deaths attributed to human tiger conflict. Though harvest season is short, running from March through May, approximately six moulis die every year when they venture into the forest and encounter one of the 88 tigers living here. The honey they are attempting to gather is referred to as blood honey.
Susanta Mondal, who has been collecting wild honey for many years, said, “we have always been worried when going into the forests. Villagers have been losing their lives trying to make a living out of this.”
In 2014, WWF-India worked with the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve Directorate to design a project to try and change this desperate situation in the Indian Sundarbans. Collaborating with the West Bengal Forest Directorate, they placed apiary boxes in designated, fenced off areas within the forest, and worked with the moulis to train them in apiculture. Less time spent in the forest meant less exposure to the tigers.
The results were overwhelmingly positive. Not only did the apiary boxes provide a safe livelihood for the moulis, the daily yield of honey was almost double than that collected from wild bees.
Encouraged by the success of WWF-India’s pilot efforts, the West Bengal Forest Directorate, West Bengal Panchayat, the Rural Development Department and the Government of West Bengal have since come together to scale up the initiative, strengthening community institutions from the forest fringe villages of 24 Parganas (South) Forest Division. Four cooperatives representing three community development blocks are now involved in a number of safe and sustainable income-generating activities, one of which is honey production.
70 individuals are now trained in apiculture, collecting honey from 1,400 apiaries. The number of apiaries at each site was placed based on the carrying capacity of the area, with a pollen productivity analysis carried out by a scientific institute to decide how many boxes were placed. What’s more, the honey produced matches the standards set by the Bureau of Indian Standards and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.
It’s estimated that a total of 45 tonnes of honey will be harvested this season. After the repayment of the loan, it is estimated that the honey collectors will earn USD 225 a month, in comparison to the USD 80 earned a month through traditional methods.
The honey collected from three of the four cooperatives will be sold under the name Bonphool Wild Honey, and the West Bengal Forest Directorate is in discussion with housing societies, retail stores and outlets promoted by the Government of West Bengal to establish market linkages which will help to secure much-needed income generation far into the future.
HOW CAN WE FURTHER REDUCE HUMAN TIGER CONFLICT?
Reducing conflict in the long term requires a holistic approach; one that will build on the work done with honey collectors to safeguard their livelihoods. This is why WWF works with communities dependent on natural resources in the Sundarbans; to build their resilience, increase their livelihood asset base, address their agricultural vulnerabilities and reduce exposure to tigers.
The success of the honey blood free honey project, as relates to tiger conflict, is that it also links to various conflict management actions in the area: namely highly trained rapid response teams led by villagers; solar lights in villages; nylon fencing to prevent dispersing tigers moving into villages; community awareness and education campaigns; and strong government policies towards incorporating resilient agricultural practices in development planning.
Partners and supporters: Wildlife Wing, West Bengal Forest Directorate, Sundarban Biosphere Reserve Directorate, Dabur India Limited, Canara HSBC Oriental Bank of Commerce Life Insurance, Bose Institute, Department of Botany – Visva-Bharati University, Department of Environmental Science – the University of Calcutta and Krishi Vigyan Kendra Nimpith.