On a good day in the jungle, honey hunters’ biggest worry is the sting of a giant bee that burns like a red-hot needle.
But on other days, they face something far more deadly: Bengal tigers up to 10 feet long that lie silently in ambush, baring canine teeth as big as spikes, hungry for the taste of people.
“Human flesh is sweet. Once a tiger has tasted it, it always prefers to prey on humans,” said Mohammed Abdul Wajed, a forestry official here in the dense mangrove jungle of Bangladesh’s southwest coast. “One tiger killed 84 people in the ‘90s. Finally, we ... shot it.”
Squeezed between the jungle and thousands of expanding shrimp and tiger prawn farms, at least 100,000 villagers risk tiger attacks to fish, cut trees and gather honey in the Sundarbans forest.
“We don’t have any other way out,” said Mohabbat Mali, a honey hunter for more than 30 years. “We are poor people in dire straits and we have to depend on the jungle for our survival.”
The Sundarbans, the world’s largest coastal mangrove forest, stretches for almost 6,000 square miles across India and Bangladesh, a natural barrier against tsunamis and frequent cyclones that blow in from the Bay of Bengal.
Many villagers enter the protected forest to cut trees for fishing boats or to supply factories that make hardboard for furniture and buildings, and additional wood products. Fishermen gather crabs, shrimp and other sea creatures. Honey hunters often have the most treacherous job, searching for bees’ nests in vegetation so dense that the only way through is on hands and knees.
Each spring, like Klondike prospectors looking for the mother lode, the honey hunters go deeply into debt to rent boats for their journey through a vast warren of muddy saltwater rivers and channels that meander around thousands of jungle islands.
They have to stock up on food and supplies for trips that last up to three months. And they have to grease the palms of corrupt forestry officials. The honey hunters wager everything, including their lives, against pirates and the whims of wild animals, including pythons, king cobras, crocodiles and the man-eating Bengal tigers. The lure of liquid gold is stronger than their fears.
Abdul Ghafoor Ghazi was gathering honey in the forest last year when a tiger pounced on his back and clamped its jaws down like a vise, killing him instantly.
“I used to object to him going deep inside the forest to collect honey,” said his widow, Jahanara Akhtar Bokul. “It’s dangerous work. But our hungry stomachs forced him to go.”
Now she depends on her three sons, ages 10 to 18, who support the family by fishing. They earn no more than 75 cents a day, about half what her late husband used to make gathering honey or doing other work in the jungle.
Sundarbans wild honey is not your supermarket sandwich spread. In a jar, it is dark amber, but turns golden in sunlight. It pours like an ice wine, with notes of lavender and oak.
Most of it is sold locally and, like any precious commodity, by weight. Mizanur Rehman, a Gabura honey dealer, charges just more than $2 for a kilo, or 2.2 pounds, of Sundarbans wild honey, which he pours into plain plastic containers.
Some of his customers have carried them as far as Saudia Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, he said.
Villagers believe a single drop of the wild Sundarbans honey on a newborn baby’s tongue will keep the child healthy for years. A few Bangladeshi drug companies use it in medicines such as cough syrup, trying to bottle a bit of the Sundarbans’ untamed magic.
With roots that tolerate salt water, the forest’s mangrove trees grow 70 feet or more above islands of layered sand and gray clay, deposited by rivers that flow more than a thousand miles from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.
Finding bees in the tangled jungle canopy is hard enough without the threat of tiger mauling. Climbing barehanded, with smoldering leaves to smoke angry giant bees from their nest long enough to get to their honey, requires ancient skills and steady nerves.
At almost an inch long, the bees that produce the honey are Asia’s largest. They don’t build hives like Western bees, but make open nests in rocks or trees that can be several yards in length.
The bees gather to form an outer wall and aggressively defend the honeycomb. Rare is a honey hunter that hasn’t met the sharp end of a giant bee.
“It’s very painful,” said Mohammed Abdul Razzaque, 42, who supports a family of 19 by gathering honey. “If the sting is really severe, you get a high fever and vomit. There is some kind of poison in the stingers.
“When you squeeze it out, blood comes with it. And when one bee stings you, it calls all the others, and then the entire nest drops on you and stings.”
It’s enough to ruin a honey hunter’s day, but not likely to kill him.
Mali, a wiry old man missing most of his teeth, has lost at least four relatives and as many friends to tiger attacks, yet he refuses to give up honey hunting.
“Every time we go in to the jungle, we pray to Allah,” Mali said, raising outspread hands to the sky.
Across Gabura, one of thousands of islands that form a broad delta on the Bay of Bengal, men like Mali say they have to risk their lives in the jungle because farmland is disappearing.
Over the last 20 years, shrimp and tiger prawn exporters have taken over thousands of rice paddies and other farms and flooded them with salt water to raise the crustaceans.
They are now Bangladesh’s second-largest export. Selling shrimp and tiger prawns, largely to Europe and the U.S., earns more than $300 million a year for Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries.
The industry employs an estimated 600,000 people, most of them in factories that freeze, pack and ship the tiger prawns and shrimp.
Most of the processing plants are more than 50 miles away in the city of Khulna, or hundreds of miles farther east in the port city of Chittagong. To work in either place, villagers say, they would have to abandon homes and cut family ties.
For thousands of families who refuse to leave, the only choice left is the hazardous work of gathering honey, fishing or cutting trees in the mangrove forest, said Abdul Haque, a teacher at a village madrasa, or Islamic school.
“By leasing out our land to the rich shrimp businessmen, we have been the worst victims,” he said as prawns flipped out of a nearby pond. “They give us a one-shot payment for the land, and we spend it fast.
“Now, when everything is said and done, we are not able to grow any vegetables or trees here. There’s no doubt that people are scared to go into the jungle. But when they start going hungry, they are forced to.”
Gabura island lies in a region with one of Bangladesh’s heaviest concentrations of shrimp and tiger prawn farms, which extend almost 50 miles inland.
The island’s ninth ward, the most densely populated area with more than 7,000 villagers, has suffered the worst casualties from Bengal tigers in the jungle, Haque said. The big cats have killed about 300 of the ward’s men in the last 20 years, he added.
Ahmed Ali Tarafdar, 80, is the rare victim of a tiger attack who lived to tell the tale. Before a bad heart forced him to retire, Tarafdar’s skill was tracking giant honeybees.
Seven years ago, Tarafdar was in a group of five honey hunters collecting firewood to cook dinner when a Bengal tiger sprang at them. “The tiger struck like lightning,” he said. “It had me in its grip for about one or two minutes.”
The tiger, with front paws the size of plates, grabbed Tarafdar from behind. Its claws sliced across both sides of his chest, and two canine teeth sank into his right shoulder, front and back. The tiger let go when Tarafdar’s son struck it on the head with a machete.
The payoff for taking such high risks is small. Last year, Mali and his team gathered 3,000 pounds of wild honey, which they sold to a local middleman for just more than $1,700.
After paying bribes for permits to enter the forest and other expenses, the money was split among nine team members. A 10th share went to the middleman, along with more than $750 that he had lent them for the boat and supplies.
Mali was left with only $90 for a hazardous month in the jungle. The money has to last him until he goes hunting honey again in the spring. That’s less than one quarter of Bangladesh’s per capita gross national income of $440. Shrimp factory workers collect a steady paycheck of at least $30 a month.
Mizanur Rehman, 35, is among the island’s biggest honey middlemen. He takes a cut from around 15 teams of honey hunters and last year made a profit of more than $3,000.
A plump man, Rehman spends most days sitting behind the wooden front counter of his small grocery store, slouched in a dark corner with one foot propped on a stool.
He offers no apologies for making money from honey hunters who put their lives on the line and get little for it. Lending money to honey hunters has its own risks, Rehman said.
“Some boats get robbed and, on average, four to five boats don’t make any money,” he said. “Besides, tigers also eat up some of the honey collectors. I have lost six or seven clients to tigers.”