The workers who risk their lives for honey

For those who are forced to venture into a tiger reserve just to scrape by, life is far from sweet

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The honey that is sold in discarded whiskey bottles from the shacks that line the pathways of Pakhiralaya cries out for a more high-end display. The honey, which costs just a handful of rupees, is light-hued, almost liquid and, bearing only the merest floral hint, intensely delicious. Moreover, it is found and gathered from under the noses of man-eating tigers. Given the perils confronted by those who enter the tigers' lair to harvest it, it is perhaps the riskiest honey in the world.

Yet the honey collectors of the Indian Sunderbans, the vast delta of mangrove swamps and low-lying islands at the mouths of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, find themselves at the very bottom of the heap. Despite, or perhaps because of, the hard-scrabble existences they live, they are often looked down upon by other villagers and government officials. Confronted by increasingly enforced regulations designed to protect the delta's famed tigers – as well as by the tigers themselves – it sometimes appears as if both mankind and nature are conspiring against them.

Things may slowly be changing in this landscape of endless water and large, star-filled skies. Economic changes that created an urban upper-middle class in nearby cities such as Kolkata have resulted in increased tourism to a place long considered a world apart. While such tourism carries with it a threat to the gently balanced environment, it also presents new opportunities for jobs and livelihoods. The sons of honey collectors are no longer forced to enter the forest as their fathers were.

Steadily, people are also waking up to the potential of the honey gathered in Sunderbans, a world singularly captured in Amitav Ghosh's novel, The Hungry Tide. While much is still sold to the government, several co-operatives have begun marketing the honey to the urban tourists who arrive on boats, eager to visit the nearby Sajnakhali tiger reserve and take back something with them. It goes very well on porridge.

Suryu Kanta Mandal has been a honey collector for 25 years. He knows better than most the danger of working in a reserve that is home to the Royal Bengal tiger. Five years ago, a group of collectors from the village entered the forest and were set upon by a tiger that killed three of them. Mr Mandal's own father was also killed by a tiger, and another friend met a similar fate.

The honey collectors try various means to protect themselves. In recent years, the government has provided rubber masks to collectors who pay a collector's fee. The masks, supposed to look like a human face, are worn by the collectors on the backs of their heads as they turn their attention to the honeycombs. The idea is based on the belief a tiger will never attack someone it thinks is looking directly at it as it would be unable to creep up on its prey.

"Whenever we go into the forest we place the masks on the back of our heads – it works," said the 50-year-old Mr Mandal, sitting outside his spartan shack with its beaten mud floor, located close to the water's edge in Pakhiralaya. "I do this work because I cannot get any other. My father was killed but I still go into the forest to collect honey during the honey season. During the rest of the year, I work as a fisherman."

In addition to the rubber masks, the efficacy of which remains the topic of debate, the collectors employ other methods, most notably asking for the protection of the forest goddess Bonbibi, who is worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims.

Before entering the forest, prayers are said at the shrines to the deity, dotted among the palm trees and thatched houses of the quiet villages. In particular, they ask her to protect them against Dakshin Rai, the demon king and the arch-rival of Bonbibi. The villagers believe it is this demon which attacks them, having adopted the form of a tiger.

While the honey collectors are away, their wives traditionally dress in the clothes of mourning and eat only vegetarian food until the men return. "During the time that our husbands are in the forest, the wives are very worried. During that time we worship Bonbibi," said Mr Mandal's wife, Naryani.

When they travel into the forest to collect honey – a task that is achieved by burning leaves to smoke out a hive before they can climb the tree and bring down the comb – the men will typically take with them a "tiger shaman", said to be able to communicate with the tiger and to be capable of providing protection using charms and sayings.

Tradition has it that such shamans are required to maintain modesty and that their powers would disappear if they openly acknowledged their roles. Some people in Pakhiralaya whispered that Mr Mandal was himself a shaman. For generations, the lives of the honey collectors and others villagers of the Sunderbans have been set according to fixed traditions and rules. Ironically, those people such as the honey collectors who make their living in the wild, dangerous forests are considered socially inferior to shopkeepers, or farm labourers who till the tamed land. The location of an individual's home – and its relative vulnerability to flooding or the unchecked force of a storm such as Cyclone Aila which tore through here in 2009 – is an indicator of this status.

Increasingly, the Indian authorities are also trying to enforce regulations introduced to protect the tiger reserves from encroachment. Permits for honey collectors and fishermen are strictly regulated, and anyone found doing either without a permit faces stiff fines. The same is true of anyone found in the interior of the reserves, which are deemed off-limits to everyone except park officials. As a result, should someone be killed by a tiger while working without a permit or in an area that is off-limits, the community hushes the matter up. While the government pays compensation to permit-holders killed by a tiger, the family of someone who was attacked by breaking the law could face a fine.

Change is slowly coming to the Sunderbans, described by Ghosh as "the trailing threads of India's fabric, the ragged fringe of her sari". Pakhiralaya is one of a series of villages established as co-operatives in 1923 by Daniel Hamilton, a Scottish businessman who sought to promote religious harmony and rural development and whose name and ethos are still referred to during services in those villages' many churches. Tourists and people seeking second homes are arriving in increasing numbers. In the past 12 months, several new guesthouses have opened in Pakhiralaya. It is expected that mains electricity will arrive soon.

Of more threat, perhaps, are plans for large-scale resorts within the Sunderbans that have recently been discussed. At the same time, observers say sensitive growth could help. Annu Jalais, an anthropologist who spent more than a year living among the honey collectors, a period that formed the basis of her book Forest of Tigers, said unregulated development was causing real damage to the region.

"The mushrooming of holiday flats and hotels, the unlicensed boats plying inside the forest, the growing pollution caused by hordes of noisy city people who've come more for a picnic than to enjoy the peace and quiet of the forest, the noxious fumes of boats, all sorts of oil contaminating the rivers, plastic bags, polystyrene plates, cups thrown into the river during the four winter months, are all lethal for the region," she said. "There are ways in which an eco-friendly tourism could be developed which would in turn help the inhabitants of the region. All it needs is imagination and honesty."

One recent positive development has been the promotion of the region's honey by NGOs and co-operatives that have woken up to the marketing potential of a natural product collected under such testing conditions. While the collectors get just 45 rupees (60p) for a kilo from the government, in the shops that sell to tourists, a large jar can sell for more than three times that sum.

Other organisations buy honey from the government, process it and sell it, and then plough the proceeds back into the community. "It's part of a comprehensive development programme," said Tushar Kanjilal, head of the Tagore Society for Rural Development, one of the organisations working in Pakhiralaya.

While the debate about development continues, for Suryu Kanta Mandal, the man who every year ventures into the forest to collect honey, the matter is very simple.

The growth of tourism and the arrival of new hotels and businesses have meant that his son has been able to get a job as a cycle-rickshaw driver. His son, unlike his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, has not had to enter the domain of the tiger, that most perilous of environments, simply to make a living.

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