The Honey Hunters

August 2014–Lucky Peach: The Seashore Issue (reprinted on Longreads)

1. Liquid Gold

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.

Zahangir, short, dark, and strong, with a deep scar across his left cheek, trudged up the bank and into the forest first. Then came Abdul Roshid, who had organized the group; Aliur Rahman, scholarly and wispy with wire-framed glasses and a scraggly goatee sprouting from his narrow chin; Abdul Joleel, practically silent for three days running; Haleem, whose voluptuous lips seemed almost indecent in his otherwise spare and angular face; Nurul Islam, compact and smiling and warm; Kholil, a big man with a penchant for big stories; and Aminool, Nurul Islam’s nephew, the youngest in the group, who spent the day hacking absently at the underbrush with a small machete (they call it a daa in Bengali) and looking after me with mute, gesticulatory enthusiasm.

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.

Extending across 10,000 square kilometers from the southwestern corner of Bangladesh and over the border into India, the Sundarbans covers the mouth of the Ganges–Brahmaputra Delta like a mask. Two of India’s mightiest rivers end their courses here in the world’s largest river delta, fanning out over 80,000 square kilometers to water the entirety of the Bengal Basin before reaching the Bay of Bengal, where they dump more than a billion tons of sediment and organic matter into the sea each year, more than any other river system.

Along the northern coast of the bay, the delta stretches 350 kilometers across, dividing and subdividing the soft alluvial soil into hundreds of mangrove-coated islands that constitute the Sundarbans. The sludge that passes for land here is mountain mud, the detritus of the shrinking Himalayas, carried across the Gangetic Plain and the Assam Valley to this tropical burial ground.

Roughly 3.5 million people live within twenty-five kilometers of the Bangladeshi Sundarbans, the vast majority of them depending on the forest for their livelihoods, either directly or indirectly. According to Zahir Uddin Ahmed, the divisional forest officer for Sundarbans West, about 300,000 of them enter the forest each day to harvest its resources. Most of them, like Zahangir, Nurul Islam, and Haleem, spend the better part of the year as fishermen, while others gather timber and palm fronds or work on shrimp farms in the surrounding villages. Aliur Rahman builds boats, about one a week with help from an assistant, for a profit of 3,000 to 5,000 taka (approximately $39 to $65) per boat. Abdul Roshid runs a motorcycle taxi service. But during these short months in the spring, they form one of the 350-odd groups that will plunge into the forest to harvest hundreds of thousands of kilograms of wild honey, the most lucrative of all the forest’s products, and the most dangerous to gather.

* * *

Few agricultural practices have a longer history than honey hunting. In the Cuevas de la Araña in eastern Spain, an 8,000-year-old painting depicts the so-called “Man of Bicorp” with his hand deep inside a beehive, surrounded by what looks like a very unhappy swarm of bees. Here in the Sundarbans, the crux of the local lore revolves around a confrontation between a group of honey collectors—known in the Sundarbans as mouals—and the fearsome tiger god Dakshin Rai, a folk deity well outside the standard Hindu pantheon. The story goes something like this:

The honey hunter Dhona and his nephew Dukhe go into the forest with a group of mouals. After some time, they still haven’t found any honey, so Dakshin Rai appears to Dhona with an offer: if he leaves his nephew as a living sacrifice, then Dakshin Rai will ensure that he returns to his village with an unthinkable bounty. Dhona accepts the offer and, in no time, finds his boat loaded with honey and wax. Before sailing for home, he sends Dukhe off into the forest alone to collect firewood. Dukhe objects, but to no avail. As Dukhe sits alone in the gloaming, Dakshin Rai takes his opportunity to pounce. In utter despair, the boy cries out to the forest goddess Bonbibi (Maa!, he cries, Bengali for “Mother”), who sends her brother Shah Jangali to chase Dakshin Rai back into the forest with a club. Bonbibi then sends the boy home on the back of a crocodile. He’s so terrified of the beast that she has to blindfold him.

The group of honey collectors I joined in the forest, practicing Muslims all, still believe (albeit quietly) in Bonbibi’s power to protect them from the forest. According to Emile Mahabub, the young ecologist who helped organize my trip, Muslim mouals won’t enter the forest on Friday afternoons because they believe Bonbibi will be too busy with her own Friday prayers to protect them. Oddly enough, the forest goddess is herself considered a Muslim—even by Hindus. The rituals practiced by some Sundarbans Hindus—as described by the naturalist Sy Montgomery in her book Spell of the Tiger—may well predate the rise of orthodox Vedic Hinduism 3,000 years ago. Dr. Istiak Sobhan, the Bangladesh program coordinator for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, says the Ganges–Brahmaputra Delta itself began taking form just 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. If the story of Dukhe is as old as it seems, then honey hunting in the Sundarbans has existed in some form or other for nearly as long as the forest itself.

The honey hunters who took me into the forest all live in a 5,000-person, Muslim village called Horinogor strung along a broad, flat river at the northern edge of the Satkhira Range, the westernmost section of the Bangladeshi Sundarbans. Though every adult male member in every one of their families had gone to the forest at least once to gather honey, none could trace his family’s presence in the village back more than three generations. Horinogor itself, like most settlements near the Sundarbans, is probably not much more than a hundred years old.

These days, honey collection is performed less as an incidental boon to fishermen working in the spring season than as unskilled seasonal labor on an inflated pay scale. Officially speaking, the honey collection season begins annually on the first of April, when the Forest Department issues permits for roughly 2,500 men (never women) to row into the forest, usually in groups of seven to ten. For two months—or longer in particularly good seasons, which come rarely now—mouals will walk for as many as ten hours each day searching among the high branches for hidden hives, the largest of which can grow to a square meter in size and yield twenty kilos of honey. (Big-story-telling Kholil claimed to have once harvested a hive containing forty kilograms.) These immense hives are built by Apis dorsata, the same giant honeybees that nest on Himalayan cliffs, concrete overhangs in Delhi and Mumbai, and throughout the forests of southeast Asia.

The bees begin migrating from the nearby countryside as early as late January. The first honey appears by mid-March along with the tight white clusters of blossoms that frost the tips of the khalsi trees. Until the end of June, the bees build their nests, dangling from the branches like inverted cockscombs and cloaked in thousands of defensive bees, each just under an inch long. On our first afternoon together, Nurul Islam told me that he had once inadvertently upset a hive with the smoke rising from his cooking fire. The swarm descended and stung him sixty times. “The whole of my body was swollen,” he said, “I had a high fever for three days.”

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 thegoran and passur trees are thick and red with little fragrance and a tendency to crystallize. 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.

Over the course of a good two-month honey season (the best of the honey will be gone by the end of May), a group of seven or eight experienced mouals can gather as many as 1,200 kilograms of raw honey and generate earnings of at least 30,000 to 50,000 taka per head. Even in the best months, a fisherman will earn less than half that. Since most groups of honey hunters earn too little throughout the rest of the year to fund their own licenses, they work through middlemen (in our group, Abdul Roshid) who arrange the necessary permits and buy their entire harvest when the season ends at about 300 to 350 taka per kilogram. In Dhaka, the middlemen sell the honey for 450 taka per kilogram to larger retailers who, in turn, repackage the product and sell it for 600 taka per kilogram or more. Hardly a drop goes to export.

Honey collectors themselves won’t keep more than a few kilos of their harvest, which they’ll use primarily as medicine in the winter months or dribble lightly over bland bowls of rice porridge in the mornings. Honey doesn’t figure in the local cuisine here. For the collectors, honey isn’t food—it’s gold.

* * *

2. To Be With Death

Like a surrealist nightmare, the Sundarbans is beautiful and sinister in equal measure. The forest seems fortified: the mudbanks are a first line of defense, low-lying ramparts that render invaders clumsy, slow, vulnerable. Phoenix palms, barbed with two-inch thorns, grow in dense clusters. The toxic white sap secreted by the broken leaves of the gewa tree will temporarily blind you if it touches your eyes (in English, they call it a blind-your-eye mangrove). Peel back the gray bark of the sundri tree[1] and the young wood shines red, as though the tree itself were bleeding. Hundreds upon hundreds of stalagmitic respiratory roots push up through the mud on the forest floor, a Gaudian dreamscape in miniature. Instead of bugs, the ground crawls with crabs; instead of acorns, it’s studded with seashells. The ghostly backs of pale gray river dolphins occasionally break the deceptively still, mud-brown surface of the water, which conceals far less benign populations of crocodiles, river sharks, and venomous sea snakes. Hidden among the greenery there are cobras and kraits and pit vipers.

The Sundarbans also shelters the largest population of Royal Bengal tigers left on the planet—roughly 350 of them—and the only ones that habitually consume human meat. The Forest Department recorded only twenty-nine official deaths in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans in 2012, just four from tiger attacks, and, according to Zahir Ahmed, none in 2013. These numbers, as anyone can tell you, bear only a tenuous connection to reality. According to a paper on the Sundarbans tigers published last year by Dr. Monirul Khan, who teaches zoology at Jahangirnagar University outside Dhaka, tigers kill an average of twenty-seven people annually in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans alone.[2] Venturing deep into the forest without the aid of guideposts or markers, mouals are more vulnerable to the dangers of the forest than anyone else.

In the course of some twenty years working in the forest, Zahangir has seen about nine tigers. Three years ago, in the middle of the honey season, one of them attacked and very nearly killed him; he has that scar on his left cheek and a set of four puncture wounds on his right shoulder, each the size of a particularly nasty cigarette burn, to show for it. It was around two p.m. on a hot May afternoon when, having just reentered the forest with two companions, he heard a roar behind him. His companions had already gone about fifteen feet ahead into the jungle and he was, for the moment, alone and practically defenseless. “When the tiger roared, I screamed, and the other two came running back, but the tiger jumped in front of me and knocked me over and grabbed me easily by my shoulder.”

When the two others appeared, the tiger released his grip on Zahangir, whose face and head were bleeding profusely. The pressure from the bite to the shoulder was so intense that it stanched the blood before it began to flow. Zahangir stood as quickly as he could, arm limp at his side, blood pouring from his face, and helped the others to chase the animal back into the forest. “All we had with us were our daa,” he said. It was four months before he could even begin to lift his arm again. He missed the remainder of that year’s honey harvest and the best months of fishing in the early monsoon—thousands of taka of potential earnings lost. The next year, once his shoulder had healed, he went back to the forest.

Every honey collector I met in and around Horinogor had a story to tell about tigers. Nurul Islam narrowly escaped an attack by chasing a tiger back into the forest with his daa. Kholil told me that he’d twice fended off tiger attacks using nothing more than a large stick. Abdul Roshid told me about a tiger that had attacked Horinogor several years back, killing three people and a slew of goats in one day.

Before he started fishing for crabs and collecting honey ten years ago, Abdul Roshid, now in his early fifties—he doesn’t know his exact age—had spent most of his life helping an uncle smuggle goods back and forth between Bangladesh and India. The Sundarbans, its maze of waterways virtually impossible to patrol, had been a popular route for illegal movement between India and Bangladesh since Partition in 1947. Over the years, relations have deteriorated and India’s Border Security Force has cracked down, killing as many as 1,000 Bangladeshis along the 4,000-kilometer border over the last decade.

In the same period, the Bangladeshi Sundarbans has become increasingly lawless, thronged with human predators who pose a greater threat than any other animal. The labyrinthine networks of rivers that lace the jungle conceal an estimated two to three thousand armed pirates, called dacoits, who routinely kidnap workers, extort money from their families, and bribe politicians in order to continue operating with impunity. As a young fisherman in the village of Mothurapur, a short walk up the embankment from Horinogor, told me, “The tigers eat one. The dacoits eat everything.”

The pirates that troll the Sundarbans run a simple but effective operation. Camping out in the forest’s waterways, they maintain close ties with informers back in the villages, who keep them apprised of the movements of their neighbors. The pirates use their powerful motors to overtake the slow wooden launches, and their firearms to intimidate the people in them (a honey collector carrying a daa stands somechance against a tiger, but not against a man with a rifle). They steal Forest Department permits along with a portion of whatever the collectors have harvested, and then take hostages. Though the dacoits rarely kill hostages deliberately, gunfights between rival gangs often result in collateral casualties. “To be with the dacoits is to be with death,” Nurul Islam told me.

They’ll hold ten to fifteen people at a time, demanding ransoms from their families and friends back home to be delivered through the mobile phone banking technologies popular throughout the developing world. In order to pay, victims and their families take out high-interest loans from local moneylenders, mostly in cahoots with the pirate gangs, who both propagate and benefit from the cycle of debt that prevents honey collectors from finding alternative (i.e., safer) employment. Even now, Nurul Islam has a cousin being held for a ransom of 15,000 taka. The family will have no choice but to pay. According to Nurul Islam, forest workers on average turn over two-thirds of their yearly salaries to the dacoits. “If we didn’t have to pay them, we could have 100,000 taka in our pockets,” he told me, visibly angry. “They suck our blood.” Welcome to the halophytic Wild West.

* * *

The various dangers of working in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans all stem from the same cruel fact of biology, ecology, and economics: competition.

Even though commercial timber harvesting in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans practically ceased in the 1990s, the forest continues to shrink each year, bringing resource gatherers, dacoits, and animals into increasingly frequent conflict. Just as natural processes have shifted the Ganges–Brahmaputra Delta south over the course of millennia, tectonic shifts in North India have urged the course of the Ganges east, leading to the gradual (and totally natural) deaths of the river’s southern distributaries, among them the Hooghly, the river that connects India’s third largest city, Kolkata, to the sea. Back in 1975, in an effort to save one of her greatest cities, India constructed the Farakka Barrage to redirect water from the Ganges back to the Hooghly. In the process, India also choked off the primary source of freshwater and sediment to Bangladesh’s western Sundarbans.

Subsidence—the natural sinking process that affects all deltas—now outpaces sedimentation in the Sundarbans, thanks, in large part, to the Farakka. Between 1979 and 2009, some eighty square kilometers of the Sundarbans sank below sea level. Now the combination of subsidence and global sea level rise threatens to put the entire forest—Bengal’s only natural buffer against cyclonic storms—underwater within a century. Under ordinary circumstances, the forest would likely just migrate north, Dr. Sobhan told me, but the dense band of human settlements along its northern boundary makes that impossible. In flood-prone Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million people crushed together onto a piece of low-lying land smaller than Illinois, the loss of the Sundarbans would be cataclysmic.

The rise in salinity levels in the western Sundarbans has led to even more pressure on the forest to provide jobs. Diminished flow of freshwater into the Bangladeshi Sundarbans beginning in the 1970s created favorable conditions for shrimp farming. So in the early eighties, a society based on labor-intensive subsistence farming shifted quite suddenly to a far less labor-intensive industry, freeing up a significant labor force with neither the capital nor the mobility to do anything other than try its luck in the forest. In the late seventies, Forest Department estimates put the number of resource gatherers entering the forest daily at 45,000. Today, Zahir Ahmed said, that number is more than six times higher.

During the 2009 season (as far back as Ahmed could take me), the Forest Department issued permits to 1,515 honey collectors in Bangladesh; last year, the department issued permits for 2,603—a number that doesn’t account for the many groups now entering the forest illegally before April 1 to poach the most valuable honey. Though the Forest Department reports a steady rise in revenues from honey and wax collection (a pretty astounding 2.28 million taka last year), Kholil told me that his group now brings in an average of about 300 kilograms less honey each year than they did before. Whether this is a result of natural changes, increased competition, or both is hard to say for sure. Kholil was certain, though, that the hive we found on our first morning had already been cut down once that season, probably a solid week earlier—and it was only April 4.

Despite the diminished returns for their work, the collectors keep coming. One young moual whom I met in Horinogor told me that, for him at least, moving to a city like Dhaka made little sense: “Friends of mine in Dhaka told me they earn 4,000 to 5,000 taka per month,” he said. “I can make that much here.”

Of the men I spoke to, only Aliur Rahman and an old man called Gangadhar in Mothurapur referred specifically to the “tradition” of honey collection. When I asked Zahangir if, given an opportunity for an equally remunerative occupation, he would still go to the forest, he looked at me as though I’d asked him the dumbest question in the world. “No,” he scoffed. Neither would he allow his son in the forest, a sentiment shared by practically every honey collector I met. “I want [him] to study. We want our children to go to schools like other children,” Haleem told me on our last afternoon together. “No father wants to take his son to the forest.”

I wonder if, twenty years from now, honey hunting in the Sundarbans will have stopped completely. I wonder equally if that would be such a bad thing.

* * *

3. In Which We Find Honey

I’d finally made it up onto more or less solid ground, coated nearly up to my knees in a slick of gray mud.

Everyone but Haleem and Aminool, who’d hung back for my benefit, had already dispersed among the nipa palms and tiger ferns. They shouted, whooped, and hollered to keep track of one another as they fanned out through the underbrush. Firecrackers burst intermittently to scare away any tigers that might be lurking nearby. A fresh pugmark that turned up in the silty ground, the only evidence I saw of tigers the whole time I was in the forest, suggested that they might have been very close indeed.

Without any trails to follow, I stuck as close as I could to Aminool, bent 90 degrees to duck under the vines dangling like nooses from the branches. I asked Aminool if we were looking for anything in particular to guide us. He smiled, gave a noncommittal shrug and pointed out the abandoned fragments of last year’s hives clinging to the branches, translucent and brown as cicada shells. Beyond that, nothing.

We’d been walking for well over an hour when the sound of the shouts coming from off in the forest changed: “Allah Allah!” someone called; a sharp ululation, it sounded to me like someone calling “Olly Olly Oxen Free!” Arriving in the clearing where the rest of the mouals had started tying torches out of tiger ferns, I heard the hive before I saw it: the rustling, crunching, consuming sound of many small creatures moving in tandem. Thousands of defensive bees clung to the hive, glossy and crowded as the seeds in a pomegranate, rippling their thoraxes in a choreographed show of aggression.

With cotton cloths wrapped securely around their faces, the collectors lit their torches. White smoke billowed out into the dense air. The bees descended in a frenzy, flew frantically, disoriented and buzzing and supremely pissed off. I huddled low behind Aminool’s torch to protect myself from the horde and, choking on smoke, watched as Abdul Joleel climbed out onto the branch and lay his body directly over the hive, now a translucent, lacy crescent. He slid his daa easily through the wax and cut down half the comb, which landed with a heavy thud in the metal basin that Kholil held above his head. He’d removed about half the hive, leaving the larvae and queen behind and a foundation for the drones to rebuild in the coming weeks. The collectors would likely return to this spot several more times this season.

As the smoke thinned, the bees, no longer anesthetized, charged. We started to move: the honey collectors ducked expertly into the forest; I tripped blindly over the respiratory roots, snagging my shirt and my skin on Phoenix palms, struggling futilely against the mud and breathing heavily in the smoke-laden air. It took fifteen minutes of tumbling headlong into the bush to outpace the bees.

We stopped, finally, in a rare clearing. I looked into the basin that Kholil had taken from over his shoulder and laid carefully on the ground: the matrix of wax, a pool of fragrant honey studded with leaves and a half dozen worker bees struggling in a trap of their own making. Kholil glanced into the basin and shrugged: a small hive. I was already exhausted, my feet caked in mud and scraped half raw by the splintered sides of roots, shirt torn and temples drenched with sweat—and I’d barely managed to move at a respectable walk. I asked Kholil how quickly they would move were they not matching their pace to an outsider’s. “On our own,” Kholil said, “we run.”

Later that afternoon, Nurul Islam brought around a bowl of honeycomb and honey, strained of the forest debris. This was khalsi, he told us, the forest’s best honey. I picked a chunk of wax out of the dish, sucked the honey out one end and bit off a piece of the deflated comb, nature’s own candy. Bright and fine and musky, it tasted just as the forest had smelled, with neither the cloying sweetness nor the viscous adhesive quality of processed honeys.

Leaving the Sundarbans several days later, I met a man ladling honey from a large metal pail on the road between the town of Bagerhat and a river post called Hularhat, where I was headed to board the overnight “rocket” steamer back upriver to Dhaka. He’d spent three years back in the eighties hunting honey in the Sundarbans until, in 1987, a tiger had followed him up into a tree. Before he managed to knock it to the ground with his daa and call for help, the tiger gouged his arm, leaving a long, jagged scar up his right forearm. Since then, he’s been harvesting honey from the hives that turn up on local farms, pollinated from jackfruit trees and sunflowers, and splitting the proceeds with the farmers. The Sundarbans still produces half of Bangladesh’s honey, and the vast majority of the country’s wild honey. (Zahangir had told me that he continues to go back to the forest because “there’s always a chance to earn more.”) But for this man, that possibility didn’t compensate for the dangers: “I’m not going back to the forest,” he told me. “There’s enough honey here.”

* * *

On our last day together, the honey collectors and I gathered at Abdul Roshid’s house back in Horinogor, a solid red brick structure toward the back of the village, set among the tidy geometry of shrimp and fish ponds, clearly the home of an affluent man. “You took a lot of risk when you came with us,” Haleem told me as we sat safely in the shade of the patio. “The spot we went yesterday is very fierce. The tigers there have a bad reputation.” The rest of the honey collectors nodded in agreement. “There are places in the jungle that are dangerous. We’re scared of those places.”

Fear is a form of respect. In the Dukhe story, Dakshin Rai gives honey in exchange for a life; the vehicle of Bonbibi’s maternal beneficence is likewise a symbol of terror and death. Gangadhar, the old man in Mothurapur, had said of the villagers who join the dacoits, “They are not afraid for their lives.” In the Sundarbans, there is no stronger condemnation. For all our urbane, patronizing exhortations to live an eco-friendly lifestyle and our paternalistic (if basically noble) desires to “protect” the environment, we have forgotten a basic fact that, in the Sundarbans, becomes painfully obvious: You don’t protect the forest. If you’re lucky, the forest protects you.

An hour earlier, in preparation for a big lunch that we’d arranged with Abdul Roshid, I’d watched three live geese slaughtered right there in the backyard, all according to halal regulations: throats carefully slit and drained onto the ground, an act of ritual logic that, in this untamable place, made perfect sense to me. Haleem and I spoke as the goose stewed over an open fire, the aromas of cardamom and bay leaf and cinnamon reassuring reminders of the proper order of things: the rules and the precision, the clear hierarchy, the goose’s neck held out straight for the butcher’s daa—a civilized kind of killing.

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