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COLUMN ONE

The Lure of Liquid Gold

Pushed off their land by shrimp farms, many villagers in southwest Bangladesh turn to hunting for wild honey in a tiger-infested jungle.

December 19, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

GABURA, Bangladesh — On a good day in the jungle, honey hunters' biggest worry is the sting of a giant bee that burns like a red-hot needle.

But on other days, they face something far more deadly: Bengal tigers up to 10 feet long that lie silently in ambush, baring canine teeth as big as spikes, hungry for the taste of people.

"Human flesh is sweet. Once a tiger has tasted it, it always prefers to prey on humans," said Mohammed Abdul Wajed, a forestry official here in the dense mangrove jungle of Bangladesh's southwest coast. "One tiger killed 84 people in the '90s. Finally, we ... shot it."

Squeezed between the jungle and thousands of expanding shrimp and tiger prawn farms, at least 100,000 villagers risk tiger attacks to fish, cut trees and gather honey in the Sundarbans forest.

"We don't have any other way out," said Mohabbat Mali, a honey hunter for more than 30 years. "We are poor people in dire straits and we have to depend on the jungle for our survival."

The Sundarbans, the world's largest coastal mangrove forest, stretches for almost 6,000 square miles across India and Bangladesh, a natural barrier against tsunamis and frequent cyclones that blow in from the Bay of Bengal.

Many villagers enter the protected forest to cut trees for fishing boats or to supply factories that make hardboard for furniture and buildings, and additional wood products. Fishermen gather crabs, shrimp and other sea creatures. Honey hunters often have the most treacherous job, searching for bees' nests in vegetation so dense that the only way through is on hands and knees.

Each spring, like Klondike prospectors looking for the mother lode, the honey hunters go deeply into debt to rent boats for their journey through a vast warren of muddy saltwater rivers and channels that meander around thousands of jungle islands.

They have to stock up on food and supplies for trips that last up to three months. And they have to grease the palms of corrupt forestry officials. The honey hunters wager everything, including their lives, against pirates and the whims of wild animals, including pythons, king cobras, crocodiles and the man-eating Bengal tigers. The lure of liquid gold is stronger than their fears.

Abdul Ghafoor Ghazi was gathering honey in the forest last year when a tiger pounced on his back and clamped its jaws down like a vise, killing him instantly.

"I used to object to him going deep inside the forest to collect honey," said his widow, Jahanara Akhtar Bokul. "It's dangerous work. But our hungry stomachs forced him to go."

Now she depends on her three sons, ages 10 to 18, who support the family by fishing. They earn no more than 75 cents a day, about half what her late husband used to make gathering honey or doing other work in the jungle.

Sundarbans wild honey is not your supermarket sandwich spread. In a jar, it is dark amber, but turns golden in sunlight. It pours like an ice wine, with notes of lavender and oak.

Most of it is sold locally and, like any precious commodity, by weight. Mizanur Rehman, a Gabura honey dealer, charges just more than $2 for a kilo, or 2.2 pounds, of Sundarbans wild honey, which he pours into plain plastic containers.

Some of his customers have carried them as far as Saudia Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, he said.

Villagers believe a single drop of the wild Sundarbans honey on a newborn baby's tongue will keep the child healthy for years. A few Bangladeshi drug companies use it in medicines such as cough syrup, trying to bottle a bit of the Sundarbans' untamed magic.

With roots that tolerate salt water, the forest's mangrove trees grow 70 feet or more above islands of layered sand and gray clay, deposited by rivers that flow more than a thousand miles from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.

Finding bees in the tangled jungle canopy is hard enough without the threat of tiger mauling. Climbing barehanded, with smoldering leaves to smoke angry giant bees from their nest long enough to get to their honey, requires ancient skills and steady nerves.

At almost an inch long, the bees that produce the honey are Asia's largest. They don't build hives like Western bees, but make open nests in rocks or trees that can be several yards in length.

The bees gather to form an outer wall and aggressively defend the honeycomb. Rare is a honey hunter that hasn't met the sharp end of a giant bee.

"It's very painful," said Mohammed Abdul Razzaque, 42, who supports a family of 19 by gathering honey. "If the sting is really severe, you get a high fever and vomit. There is some kind of poison in the stingers.

"When you squeeze it out, blood comes with it. And when one bee stings you, it calls all the others, and then the entire nest drops on you and stings."

It's enough to ruin a honey hunter's day, but not likely to kill him.

Mali, a wiry old man missing most of his teeth, has lost at least four relatives and as many friends to tiger attacks, yet he refuses to give up honey hunting.

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