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Embracing beekeeping to stop fatal tiger attacks in Sundarbans mangrove forest

Beekeeping as an alternative livelihood to stop locals from venturing into Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, and encountering tigers.

The government of the Indian state of West Bengal has started a new initiative, offering locals an alternative livelihood based on beekeeping. The aim is to stop people from venturing inside the Sundarbans mangrove forest, the largest on the planet, in a bid to protect the precious ecosystem and stop potentially fatal encounters with tigers.

Bengal tiger
Over 50 people lose their lives every year after venturing illegally into the Sundarbans forest to support themselves and getting attacked by tigers © Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images

Close encounters with tigers

Tarun Chowdhury resides in the area. Until a few months ago, the 40-year-old used to venture deep inside the forest and risk his life due to the considerable tiger population to catch crabs, fish and collect wild honey to support himself. He still shudders when recounting the day when his relative didn’t return from the forest. He was taken away by the “man-eater” – “the mere thought of the dreadful day sends chills down the spine. His body wasn’t found. Villagers later named a local canal after him,” he says as his eyes begin to moisten.

Chowdhury himself had a close encounter with tigers three times in the past few years. “The tiger was within sniffing distance from me. Fortunately, I managed to save myself, but luck can’d be always favourable”. Like him, several thousand people engage in livelihood activities which cause them to enter the Sundarbans forest illegally.

Sundarbans mangrove forest, bangladesh
About 50,000 to 60,000 people depend on the Sundarbans, collecting crabs, fish, firewood and honey to earn a living © Getty Images

The Sundarbans forest

The Sundarbans is spread over 16,900 square kilometres and two thirds of it is in Bangladesh. The archipelago comprising more than a hundred islands is famous for the world’s largest mangrove forest, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987, and for being the habitat of the Royal Bengal Tiger – which has the largest population out of all existing tiger subspecies, though it, like the others, is classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

According to the West Bengal forest department’s 2019-2020 census of Sunderbans’ Royal Bengal Tiger population, the total has increased to 96 in 2020 as compared to 88 tigers in 2019. While around 50 people on average are killed by these animals every year, it is widely believed that many deaths remain unreported “because people venture illegally inside the prohibited area and family members don’t report them going missing for fear of inviting action by the police,” says Prasenjit Mandal, founder of the Sundarban Foundation, a non-profit working to create alternate livelihoods for local people.

“The trespasses have increased during the coronavirus pandemic as people have lost their sources of livelihood and are desperate to make ends meet. This has obviously led to an increase in attacks and deaths”.

Beekeeping as an alternative livelihood

Concerned about the rising conflicts between humans and animals, the West Bengal forest department decided to stop or minimise people from venturing deep inside the forest. “We thought that the only way was to create alternate livelihood opportunities for them,” says Santhosha Gubbi R, Divisional Forest Officer of the South 24 Parganas district. “We began to think about the kind of work that could be done from safe areas, without any risks”.

That’s how they came up with beekeeping, which can be carried out from inside the forest office’s campus, therefore avoiding contacts with the big cats. “We began to convince people to start beekeeping on our campus. People were apprehensive initially as they had been doing the same work, venturing into the forest, for generations. Eventually, some of them came forward to take part in our initiative,” Santosha adds.

 

The project finally kicked off in January this year when 72 locals were trained in beekeeping by professionals. “We were trained and provided loans by the West Bengal co-operative bank through which we purchased apiary boxes and other items,” explains participant Debasish Mondal. “It was all together a different experience as we worked without the perpetual fear of being targeted by wild animals”.

The group managed to produce 37 tonnes of honey over the following three months. “It was an exceptional work by these men who worked around the clock to ensure the honey’s good quality,” adds Santhosha. “We’ve packed and branded the honey as Bonphool, which has all the necessary certificates and even a bar code. We already have agreements with chain stores and are also trying to sell it through e-commerce companies. Our honey is far better compared to what is available in the wild as it has a lower moisture content and is devoid of animal protein”.

He also points out that people’s income has also increased through beekeeping. “Earlier they used to earn 100 Rupees (1.30 US dollars) per kilo of honey after putting their lives at risk inside the forest, but now they can earn 600 Rupees (8 dollars) per kilo in a safe environment”.

“We could have sold all the honey but the closure of markets has prevented us from doing so,” Debasish points out, conceding that the results could have been far better without the impact of the pandemic. “Cyclone Amphan also hit us as some of the bees died. But we expect the things to go back to normal soon,” he adds, hopeful.

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