The boat glides slowly into a channel between two islands. The silhouettes of the mangrove trees rear up like sentinels into the clear night sky, just hours before dawn. Sanatan Sardar, 35, barely notices the mysterious beauty of the Sundarbans forests, he is more concerned about guiding his boat with his group into the Sundarbans to collect wild honey.
Moulis like Sanatan are the traditional honey gatherers in the Sundarbans who venture into the forest during honeycollection season, which lasts for about three months in a year.
Sanatan is from the Sardarpara village on Satjelia island of Sundarbans and is the leader of his group, the most experienced and skilled. His group, mostly family members, venture out together with each trip lasting between 7-15 days. The Forest Department issues a license every season to leaders like Sanatan for collection of wild honey from the Sundarbans. Over 3000 honey collectors are issued permits each year to enter designated forest areas for honey collection. Honey collectors make nearly 6000 rupees every month during the season. However, such forays into the forest are fraught with danger. In the past 15 years, nearly 100 honey collectors have lost their lives to tiger attacks. Therefore, the moniker ‘blood honey’.
Sanatan and his group are well aware of this danger and exercise precautions. While in the forest, certain members of the group specially act as look outs for tigers and post collection, each group anchor their boat only in the middle of the creek between islands to prevent tiger attacks. However, in spite of such precautions, honey collectors are still at risk. These men are the sole earning members of their families, and an attack could put the future of an entire family at risk.
WWF-India has been working in the Sundarbans since 1973 with a focus on conserving its biodiversity, particularly tigers, as well as promoting alternate livelihood and clean energy solutions for local communities to reduce conflict with wildlife and pressures on natural habitat with the objective of achieving a harmonious co-existence in the region. This issue of wild honey collection and its impact on the lives of honey collectors is a priority concern for WWF-India as well as the policy and decision makers in Sundarbans.
Sustainable and safe honey production
Apiculture in forest fringes of Indian Sundarbans within the state of West Bengal with Apis mellifera is in large scale. Approximately 5,545,281 kg of honey valuing 419,676,874 was produced over a period of seven years (2005–2012) from the apiculture. WWF-India believes that the fatal casualties associated with the livelihood of honey collection can be avoided if traditional honey collectors are permitted to keep apiary boxes in designated forest areas to produce honey instead of going into the forest to extract wild honey. Human-wildlife interaction will thereby be reduced to zero and at the same time the community will be assured of a harvest. This option will also help in receiving community support for tiger conservation in the Indian Sundarbans. WWF-India in collaboration with Sundarban Biosphere Reserve Directorate have designed pilot studies since 2014 to establish a safe and sustainable honey production in Sundarbans.
Excerpts from the pilot studies
The results of the pilot studies exceeded expectations!The daily yield of honey from each apiary box has been nearly double the quantity collected by groups such as those of Sanatan’s. The honey prepared in these boxes were tested for quality at the Kolkata lab of Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS)and Bose Institute, Kolkata and it matched the standards set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).The results of the study bode well for groups such as Sanatan’s who by setting up such apiary boxes can avoid going into the forests of Sundarbans. Collection of such blood-free honey, if adopted on a large scale, has the capacity to eliminate casualties due to tiger attacks.
Optimism and concerns
Sanatan Sardar is upbeat about the collaborative initiatives of WWF-India and Sundarban Biosphere Reserve Directorate initiatives in Sundarbans, as this option has emerged as a safe and secure livelihood option. In various stakeholder discussions, the honey collectors have shown interest to shift towards this secure and sustainable livelihood option. There are requests from other honey collectors in the region to be trained on apiculture and willingness to shift from the present practice.
WWF-India is engaging with the Forest Department to set up bottling units in around 46 forest fringe villages of Sundarbans which enable honey collectors to convert their product into saleable table honey to increase sales. Discussions are underway to develop institutional mechanism of honey collection, processing and marketing. Apart from this engagement, a practical manual is being prepared in association with scientific institutions for the honey collectors to maintain industry standards. It is also important to eliminate middle men from the chain and ensure that the local communities directly sell their products in the market.
More ground to cover
WWF-India believes that there is more ground to cover regarding long term sustainability and scalability of this initiative which would stand scientific scrutiny. WWF-India in collaboration with premiere scientific institutes are carrying out ecological studies to assess carrying capacity and pollination ecology to estimate honey yield. The carrying capacity of Sundarbans forests will help determine how many apiary boxes can be placed to ensure economic feasibility of this initiative at a large scale. Further, WWF-India aims to create market linkages for the honey collectors to ensure a premium price for this high quality honey and is already in discussion with marketing entities and certification agencies thereby helping to improve profit margins while reducing the risks associated with this livelihood.
Courtesy: Ratul Saha, Landscape Coordinator-Sundarbans Landscape, WWF-India Team