On Assignment with Noor Ahmed Gelal: Photographing the most dangerous job in the world

To be with death: Honey Hunters of Sundarbans

images & reporting by Noor Ahmed Gelal

The Sundarbans mangrove forest covers 10,000 square kilometers, 6,000 square kilometers in Bangladesh and 4,000 square kilometers in India. The area extends from the Hooghly River in India’s state of West Bengal to the Baleswar River in Bangladesh. According to the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, there are 117 rivers flowing through the Bangladesh portion of Sundarbans to the Bay of Bengal.

The annual honey gathering season brings lots of expectations in the southwest of the country, as it provides people with much needed extra income. On average, the fishermen earn around $70 to $80 (£42 to £49) each during the season. Honey gathering may sound like a normal rural occupation but here it is perhaps the most dangerous job in the world.

It was morning, ebb tide, when our launch slid up to the shore-shiny and metallic and unstable as mercury-and stuck its nose resolutely into the mud. Felt clouds sulked overhead, temporary protection from the blazing April sun. The honey collectors hopped one by one down onto the shore, which swallowed them up to their calves before releasing a thick, flatulent squelch. Like all the world’s mangrove forests-the low-slung tracts of salt-tolerant trees that line tropical coastlines from Brazil to Indonesia-the Sundarbans lives on mud and water, on silt and salt, its alien landscape treacherous even for the initiated, which I most certainly was not.

April and May, the period of the honey harvest, are hot months virtually everywhere on the subcontinent, but here in the Sundarbans the heat is excruciating. Temperatures climb over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the brutal pre-monsoon spring. The sun pounds the uncountable streams, rivers, and creeks like a blacksmith trying to flatten a crooked piece of tin. The heat pours through the loose weave of the salt-stunted canopy.

There’s no breeze-just a hard, uncompromising humidity. In the course of the spring bloom, the bees will produce honey from as many as twelve species of trees, each distinct in flavor, texture, and color. Honeys from the goran and passur trees are thick and red with little fragrance and a tendency to crystallize.

Prayer gatherings by honey collectors (Mouwals) before getting into the Sundarban Mangrove forest. Prayer for healthy collection and safer return to home from predators like Bengal Tiger, estuarine crocodile, king cobra and others.

Keora honey, though fair and thin (traits valued as highly in Sundarbans honey as they are in Bollywood actresses) is blandly sweet compared to the first and most prized of the Sundarbans honeys: khalsi. Pale gold in color, liquid and fragrant, subtle in its sweetness with a tart, almost peppery sting at the finish, khalsi honey lasts no later than mid-April and, once harvested, ferments within three months; honey hunting is as much a game of speed as endurance.

The process of collecting Honey and Wax in Sundarbans Mangrove Forest, UNESCO World Heritage Site. A Mouwals man is covered by bees (Apis dorsata, the giant honey and dominant bee species found in Sundarbans).

According to the Forest Department, a total of 723 quintal of wild honey was collected from the Burigoalini range in Sundarbans West Zone in 2019. 

The range is considered to be the largest honey collection zone in the mangrove forest.

From the same range, 885 quintal was collected in 2015-16, 1030 quintal in 2014-15, and 1082 quintal in 2013-14.

“In the last few years, those who are entering the forest at the government declared time, are getting less amount of honey,” Sirajul Islam, a Mawali from Datinakhali area under the Burigoalini range, told the Dhaka Tribune.

Forest officials have blamed the reduced volume of honey on rising water salinity levels and the construction of mobile phone towers inside the forest.

Experts believe the changing of the flowering time period during the natural collection months of April, May and June could also be a factor.

The forest department only issues permits to the Mawali people for entering and collecting honey from the Sundarbans during this fixed timeframe.

“The government should shift the official time period for honey collection ahead by 15 days, as honey production has been beginning earlier than usual,” Pavel Partha, an ecology and biodiversity researcher with 12 years of experience working in Sunderbans, said.

“Many of the plants in the mangrove forest are dependent on honey for pollination. If the honey is not collected on a regular basis, the bees will become naturally lazy, and this could halt their movement as well as the pollination of plants.”

2020 Boom

Compared to 2019, an additional 478 quintals of honey and 137 quintals of wax have been produced in 2020. Officials credit favorable environmental conditions for the increase.

Rising sea levels and salinity 

According to a recent government study titled “Assessment of Sea Level Rise and Vulnerability in the Coastal Zone of Bangladesh through Trend Analysis,” the water level in the Ganges tidal floodplain increased by 7-8mm per year over the last 30 years.

At the same time, it increased by 6-9mm per year in the Meghna Estuarine floodplain, and by 11-20mm a year in the Chittagong coastal plain area over the same period. The increasing sea level has led to salt encroaching further inland.

Data from the Soil Resource Development Institute (SRDI) shows that total area affected by salt in the coastal region increased by 26% from 1973 to 2009, with 3.5% of the increase taking place in the last nine years. 

Areas affected by high salinity are primarily located in the southwestern and central zones of the coastal region.

“We have seen that less honey is being collected in recent years, and are trying to address the issue,” Md Bashirul-Al-Mamun, divisional forest officer of Sundarbans West Zone, said.

“Increasing salinity may have reduced the flowering of mangrove trees and led to the reduction in honey collected.”

Forest economy

The permit for a boat carrying up to nine people for honey collection requires a fee of around Tk7,000, with each person allowed to collect up to 75kg of honey. The forest department issues the permit from April 1 each year.

All of the teams that apply get permission to roam the entire forest and collect honey for a month. Apart from collectors with permission, many also enter the forest illegally in order to collect various resources, including honey.

According to the Forest Department, about 16,000 maunds (1 maund=37.32kg) of honey and honeycombs are extracted from the Sundarbans annually.

Around 500,000 people living on the periphery of the forest are hugely dependent on the forest for resources such as honey, fish, shrimp fry, crabs, Nipah Palm (Golpata), and wood.

From 2001-2018, tigers killed 207 people who had gone to the Sundarbans to earn their livelihoods, according to the forest department. 

Amjad Dhali (66) – Mouali (honey hunter) of Sundarbans, was attacked by the honey bees with their barbed stinger that remains in his skin along with the venom sack that causes painful red bumps. Evidence of stings are apparent in the scars that form a triangle on his face, extending from his forehead to both cheeks. Amjad Dhali is an experienced and fearless honey collector who has vast knowledge of the natural world. He has earned a living from hunting and gathering the likes of honey, fish, leaves etc., from the forest for around 50 years. He is well-aware of natural evolution in the forest and the impacts of climate change.

The Sundarbans is the source of livelihood for the people living in the coastal areas of Satkhira. Those people travel to the largest mangrove forest of the world and risk their lives. Among them, honey collectors – locally called moual – face the greatest risks. Sometimes they are killed by tigers.

The moual are deprived of a fair price for the honey they risk their lives to collect while the middlemen profit from it. Additionally, there is adulterated honey sold on the market, labelled as kholisha flower honey from the Sundarbans.

The honey of kholisha flowers is the best quality honey and is very popular. Its price is also high. Aside from the honey of kholisha flowers, the mouals also collect honey from goran, bain and gibor flowers.  

The harvesting period of kholisha flowers’ honey starts in the beginning of May and continues till July. The honey collected in May looks bright while the honey harvested in June and July looks slightly darker.

Kholisha plant

Kholisha is a mangrove plant. A mature plant is five to seven feet tall. It cannot be found everywhere in the jungle of the Sundarbans. When the flowers bloom, swarms of bees come to collect the honey. Butterflies also like the flowers. These plants grow separately in the forest. They do not grow in dark places. This plant also grows in: India, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and China. 

Harvesting the honey

Mohosin Alam is a moual. He lives in Sora village under Gabura union in Shyamnagar upazila of Satkhira. Around 40,000 people live in different villages of the union and almost half of them depend on the Sundarbans and the coastal rivers for their livelihood. 

Mohosin has shared his experience of collecting honey from the forest – and the obstacles the mouals face in their profession – with The Business Standard.  

The first step of going to the Sundarbans to collect honey is to prepare a team of 10-12 mouals. Then they take loans at a certain interest rate from local money-lenders – called mohajon – and rent boats for one month with that money. It costs Tk1 lakh to rent a boat. With a sufficient amount of food and necessary equipment on the boats, they travel to the forest. After anchoring the boats at a suitable place, the collectors enter the jungle – divided into several groups.  

Every few moments, they signal to each other by making a sound – ku ku – to know everyone’s location. Everybody searches for beehives. When one of them finds a beehive, he calls the other members of the team using the signal. 

“The man, who carries the collection basket, is called kariala. The man who disperses the bees is called karuala and another moual slices the hive,” said Mohosin. The kariala goes to the boat to keep the collected hive there. In such a way, the team works in three groups.

Obstacles to collecting honey

The mouals enter the Sundarbans with a boat license certificate given by the forest department. 

“Most of the mouals travel to the forest illegally. However, the mouals, who enter the forest with the government’s permission, also have to give Tk1,000 per boat to the foresters inside the Sundarbans. Apart from this, the mouals have to give the officers two kilogrammes of honey per maund. Further, many mouals have been killed by tigers,” said Mohosin.

From 2001-2018, a total 207 people – who went to the Sundarbans to earn their livelihoods – were killed by tigers, according to the forest department.  

However, when asked about the allegation that money and honey is taken from the mouals, Abul Hasan, assistant forest conservator of Sundarbans Satkhira Range, said, “If anybody can give any proof of such kind of act, action will be taken against the officer concerned.”
 
There are 260 boat license certificates for collecting honey from the Sundarbans. One certificate allows one boat, that can accommodate six mouals, entry. So there are 1,560 honey collectors in the district. 

Supplying honey to the markets

Another honey collector of Sora village, Rafikul Islam, said they extract honey from the hives after returning to the boats. They keep the honey in several small drums. Then they sell the honey to the honey traders. 

Shahinur Rahman is a honey trader. His shop Modhur Canteen is the biggest shop in Shyamnagar Sadar, from where the honey is supplied to different parts of the country.

Shahinur said, “I supply the honey to different regions of the country through courier service. I get orders online. My shop has become renowned now. All the customers contact me to get the best quality honey of the Sundarbans. Today (Thursday) I sent 44 kilogrammes of honey to: Chandpur, Jalalpur, Sunamganj, and Dhaka. I sell kholisha flower honey at Tk800 per kilogramme at retail level and Tk900-Tk950 at the wholesale level.”

Middlemen make the profits

Moual Mohosin Alam said, “If we sell the honey to the mohajon from whom we took the loan, we get Tk10,000-Tk12,000 per maund of honey. The market price of that honey is Tk15,000-Tk16,000. If we do not sell the honey to the mohajon, we have to give him a share of the money we earn from the sale.

“Influential traders purchase the kholisha flower honey – which we risk our lives collecting from the Sundarbans – at a low price and then sell it on the markets across the country at a higher rate. Additionally, adulterated honey is being sold on the markets as honey from the Sundarbans,” said Mohosin. 

Fake kholisha flower honey

There are some unscrupulous honey traders, who cheat people by selling adulterated or fake honey calling it kholisha flower honey. They make honey from sugar or cultivate bees for the commercial production of honey. As the price of the Sundarbans’ honey is much higher, they follow this dishonest path.   

Gazi Imran Hossain of Shyamnagar Sadar said adulterated honey was seized from Shyamnagar several years ago. One cannot distinguish this impure honey from the pure one at first. After several days, when sugar deposits at the bottom of the bottle of the honey, people can understand that it is not authentic.   

There are honey traders in every upazila of Satkhira. They collect honey in different ways and sell it to the customers. Nazrul Islam of Shibpur village in Tala Sadar area bought honey from a shop in Tala Bazar 15 days ago. He said, “After several days, I saw that sugar was deposited at the bottom of the bottle. Then I realized that it was adulterated honey.”

According to Gourob Das, deputy general manager of Satkhira Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) estate, there are 800 registered bee farmers in the district. Altogether there are 1,500 bee farmers in the region. Currently, these bee farmers are supplying honey to the shops in different markets of the district. 

He said, “These bee cultivators were trained under a project named Moumachi Prokolpo [Bee Project] till 2017. Two programmes were also held in the Sundarbans region. They were also provided with Tk20,000-Tk25,000 loans each. However, they did not pay back the loans.”

SM Abdullah, the district marketing officer of Satkhira, said the government price of honey, per kilogramme, was Tk550. 

“We do not have the capability of determining which honey is pure and which one is not. The Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) has that capability. There are some verbal allegations that fake honey is being sold by dishonest traders in Shyamnagar. If anybody gives any specific information in this regard, action will be taken by a mobile court,” said Abdullah

Honey production in the Sundarbans, a Unesco World Heritage site, has got a boost due to a favourable environment, according to the Forest Department.

Muhammad Belayet Hossain, divisional forest officer (DFO-East) of Sundarbans, said the density of trees and sources of honey in the Sundarbans has marked a rise in the world’s largest mangrove forest.

“The number of flowers at different species of trees has also increased. Bees have found a favourable environment for making hives. That’s why honey production has increased in the Sundarbans this year,” he said.

Compared to the previous year, an additional 478 quintals of honey and 137 quintals of wax have been produced this year.

Belayet Hossain is hopeful that more honey will be produced in the Sundarbans in the future.

Local beekeepers said the amount of extracted honey is more than ever.

According to the Sundarbans East Division, 1220.50 quintals of honey and 366.15 quintals of wax were extracted from the area under the Sundarbans East Division in the fiscal year 2019-2020. Of this, an amount of Tk 915,375 came in revenue from honey and Tk 366,150 from beeswax. In all, the revenue of the forest department is Tk 1,281,525 from honey and beeswax.

In the financial year 2018-2019, 742.50 quintals of honey and 229.50 quintals of wax were extracted from the area under the Eastern Division of the Sundarbans. The revenue income from honey and beeswax in the last financial year was Tk 7,86,475.

Honey extraction in the Sundarbans starts from April 1 every year and continues for three consecutive months till June 30.

The beekeepers of Bagerhat, Khulna and Satkhira districts adjacent to the Sundarbans have been extracting honey from the Sundarbans for generations.

They return to their localities with honey after depositing the revenue fixed by the forest department.

Ismail Hossain, 60, of Chaltebunia village near the Sundarbans in Sharankhola upazila of Bagerhat district, said he has been extracting honey from the Sundarbans for 15 years and this year he joined a team of 11 men to enter the Sundarbans to collect honey.

After collecting honey for 15 consecutive days, he returned home with three maunds of honey from the Sundarbans in two phases. Previously, he took Tk 20,000 from a neighbour to collect honey.

When Ismail came back, he sold honey to the same neighbour at a price of Tk 500 per kg.

Ismail Hossain added that the amount of honey in the forest was much higher this year as compared to the previous years.

Jahangir Hossain, 50, of South Southkhali village near the Sundarbans, collected honey and wax from different areas, including Andharamanik, Choto Andharamanik, Meherali Char, Tier Char, Durba and Chhota Ambaria.

“Although honey has been extracted from the Sundarbans for almost 20 years, I’ve never seen so many bees in the Sundarbans like this year. The beehives were also full of honey. Due to the low human movement this year in the Sundarbans, bees made bigger hives and extracted honey from the flowers of different trees,” he said.

According to a 2018 survey, the number of different species of trees per hectare in the Sundarbans is 32,000 while a 2015 survey showed the number of trees per hectare in the Sundarbans was 28,000.

About Noor Ahmed Gelal

Originally from Bangladesh, Noor Ahmed Gelal is a globally acclaimed, award-winning documentary photographer. Learn more about him and his work at http://noorgelal.photo/

*All images copyright Noor Ahmed Gelal

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