The world’s largest mangrove forest is located in southwestern Bangladesh along its border with India. Few forests remain in this area, due to agricultural development in the fertile delta. One of the last preserved tracts constitutes the Sundarbans National Park. In addition to providing a home for mangroves, the Sundarbans also serves as a habitat for the endangered Bengal tiger, saltwater crocodile, venomous snakes, leopards, and many species of insect. The giant honeybee, the largest, most aggressive bee in the world, produces its prized honey there.
In order to collect this honey, hundreds of Mawlai fishermen take a 3-week break from their day jobs. In boats containing teams of 7 to 10 people, the fishermen travel the muddy saltwater creeks that crisscross the thick mangrove forest. Every moment of their journey poses a potential danger. The biggest risk comes from the Bengal tigers, which kill at least 8 people each season.
Practices have developed over generations to safeguard the honey gatherers. For example, before beginning their expedition, the men pray to the forest god Bonbibi for protection. The honey collectors also wear masks or loose-fitting headscarves to provide attacking tigers with a harmless place to bite. Despite their best efforts, nearly every collector has a story to tell about a tiger encounter, many of which left deep scars as mementos.
When a honey hunter spots a hive high in the branches of a mangrove tree (they are hard to miss, being up to 9 feet in diameter!), team members light a fire to drive the bees away. Next, the best climber scurries up the tree to collect the honey and honey comb. While he climbs, the remaining team members clap their hands and blow horns to fend off any tigers that might be stalking them.
An individual honey collector will harvest about 4 maunds of honey (one maund is equal to approximately 83 pounds) and is paid between 5,800 and 6,700 taka each year (one dollar is worth about 79 taka). Honey or not, that’s some pretty sweet cash!
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